A Cyberinfrastructure platform to meet the needs of data intensive radio astronomy on route to the SKA

The LOFAR Beam Former: Implementation and Performance Analysis

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By Samuel George 3919 days ago

Traditional radio telescopes use large, steel dishes to observe radio sources. The LOFAR radio telescope is different, and uses tens of thousands of fixed, non-movable antennas instead, a novel design that promises ground-breaking research in astronomy. The antennas observe omnidirectionally, and sky sources are observed by signal-processing techniques that combine the data from all antennas.
Another new feature of LOFAR is the elaborate use of software to do signal processing in real time, where traditional telescopes use custom-built hardware. The use of software leads to an instrument that is inherently more flexible. However, the enormous data rate (198 Gb/s of input data) and processing requirements compel the use of a supercomputer: we use an IBM Blue Gene/P.
This paper presents a collection of new processing pipelines, collectively called the beam-forming pipelines, that greatly enhance the functionality of the telescope. Where our first pipeline could only correlate data to create sky images, the new pipelines allow the discovery of unknown pulsars, observations of known pulsars, and (in the future), to observe cosmic rays and study transient events. Unlike traditional telescopes, we can observe in hundreds of directions simultaneously. This is useful, for example, to search the sky for new pulsars. The use of software allows us to quickly add new functionality and to adapt to new insights that fully exploit the novel features and the power of our unique instrument. We also describe our optimisations to use the Blue Gene/P at very high efficiencies, maximising the effectiveness of the entire telescope. A thorough performance study identifies the limits of our system.