It’s ‘game on’ for UTMOST

Nov 17, 2014

Hardware used in video gaming has helped turn an old telescope into a powerful new one, UTMOST.

The University of Sydney’s Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST), 50 km from Canberra, has been transformed by three universities—Sydney, Swinburne and the Australian National University—working together in a project facilitated by CAASTRO.

The telescope has kept its basic structure—a 1600-m ‘trough’ of wire mesh that captures radio waves. But under the bonnet it’s a different beast.

Looking west along the UTMOST telescope.

Looking west along the UTMOST telescope

UTMOST’s new ‘backend’—signal-processing computers that incorporate off-the-shelf gaming technology—can handle up to 22 gigabytes of data per second, and will churn through almost an exabyte (1018 bytes) of data every year. This brings the telescope into the era of ‘big data’.

In fact UTMOST is designated as an official ‘pathfinder’ instrument for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the next-generation mega-telescope that will be built in Australia and southern Africa.

The re-born telescope is 40 times more efficient, and will pioneer new observing modes relevant to the SKA.

For instance, UTMOST will be well suited to do widefield, high-time-resolution studies of a new cosmic phenomenon, the Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). FRBs are one-off radio pulses, without known counterparts at other wavelengths, which appear to originate in the distant universe. The new capacity of UTMOST will give Australia a commanding lead in the race to determine their origin.

The telescope will also be ideal for making precise timing measurements of pulsars, the superdense stars left over from supernova explosions, to learn about their exotic matter and to use them as tools for detecting the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein.

The galaxy Fornax A, imaged with UTMOST

The first object imaged in detail by UTMOST: the ‘radio galaxy’ Fornax A. The host galaxy—the central point source in this image—has a supermassive black hole at its heart that fuels two hot jets of gas (not visible here): the jets billow out into the two large ‘lobes’ of radio-emitting particles. The image data were obtained in a 9-hour observation by Chris Flynn and Vikram Ravi (both Swinburne University of Technology), and  processed by Vikram Ravi, Emil Lenc (CAASTRO / University of Sydney) and Shivani Bhandari (Swinburne University of Technology).