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The age of astronomy Big Data is already here: Australian Pawsey powerhouse supercomputer crunches pre-SKA data torrent

22 July 2013, Perth, Australia –  High-performance computing specialists from Perth’s International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) today became the first users of one of Australia’s leading supercomputing facilities – the Pawsey Centre – ahead of its official opening later this year.

The Murchison Widefield Array Data Archive team from ICRAR, L-R, Dave Pallot, Professor Andreas Wicenec and Associate Professor Chen Wu at the Pawsey Centre for Supercomputing in Perth, Western Australia. Image Credit: ICRAR.

The Murchison Widefield Array Data Archive team from ICRAR, L-R, Dave Pallot, Professor Andreas Wicenec and Associate Professor Chen Wu at the Pawsey Centre for Supercomputing in Perth, Western Australia. Image Credit: ICRAR.


The recent launch of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) – a radio telescope based in Western Australia’s Mid West – marked the start of an impressive flow of astronomical data that will be stored in the iVEC-managed Pawsey Center in Kensington for later use by researchers around the world.

“We now have more than 400 megabytes per second of MWA data streaming along the National Broadband Network from the desert 800 km away,” said Professor Andreas Wicenec, from The University of Western Australia node of ICRAR.



The Murchison Widefield Array is the first Square Kilometre Array precursor to enter full operations, generating a vast torrent of information that needs to be stored for later retrieval by researchers.

“To store the Big Data the MWA produces, you’d need almost three 1 TB hard drives every two hours,” said Prof. Wicenec. “The technical challenge isn’t just in saving the observations but how you then distribute them to astronomers from the MWA team in far-flung places so they can start using it.”

There are currently two links between the data stores in Perth and MWA researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States and the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. A future link to India — another MWA partner — will also be created.

“Not everyone needs all of the MWA data,” said Professor Wicenec. “For example, MIT researchers are interested in the early universe so we use filtering techniques to control what data is copied from the Pawsey Center archive to the MIT machines. So far, more than 150 TB of data has been transferred automatically to the MIT store, with a stream of up to 4 TB a day increasing that value.”

Professor Wicenec said the MWA is producing so much information that it would be impossible to manually decide where to send what, which is where a sophisticated archiving system — the open-source Next Generation Archive System (NGAS) — comes in.

“Controlling data for a widely distributed user group on this scale is a challenge that’s being faced more and more frequently in science and other fields, but nothing suitable existed that could solve this problem for us,” said UWA Associate Professor Chen Wu.

NGAS was initially developed by Professor Wicenec while he was at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and later modified by the ICRAR team to meet the MWA data challenge.

Associate Professor Wu said NGAS is very advanced — it doesn’t matter where data is stored, you simply ask the system for what you want and it either provides it from the local store or retrieves it from the full archive back in Perth through a highly efficient dataflow management system.

Antennas of the Murchison Widefield Array silhouetted against the sun. Image Credit: Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, ICRAR.

Antennas of the Murchison Widefield Array silhouetted against the sun. Image Credit: Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, ICRAR.

About half of all MWA computing occurs on site in the Murchison, where signals from radio telescope antennas are combined and processed in a powerful system of computers called a correlator. What’s left to do in Perth is produce images, and manage storage and distribution by the archive system so MWA astronomers can analyze the collected data.

Optical fiber links the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) – where the MWA is situated – to the Pawsey Center in Perth. Data travels down a dedicated 10 gigabit per second connection between the MRO and Geraldton, and the trip to Perth is completed on Australia’s new high-speed National Broadband Network.



The MWA will store about 3 Petabytes (3000 TB) at the Pawsey Center each year, equivalent to the MWA observing about a quarter of the time. Another section of the Pawsey Center will be a supercomputing facility that includes computing for Australia’s other SKA precursor, CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), and projects from geoscience and other computationally intensive fields.

“We’re really impressed with iVEC and the staff from Cray and SGI,” said Prof. Wicenec. “We’ve been pushing to have resources ready as soon as possible so we could take advantage of Pawsey’s capabilities for the MWA. They have provided us with very early access to the facility, which has let us interact directly with the experts and optimize the integration and setup of complex hardware and software systems.”

“We’re very grateful for the support from everyone in the team.”

Further information
About the Pawsey Centre: The Pawsey Centre is a world-class supercomputing center, named after pioneering Australian radio astronomer Dr. Joe Pawsey and managed by iVEC. The primary aim of the center is to host new supercomputing facilities and expertise to support SKA pathfinder research, geosciences and other high-end science. The facility is supported through $80 million from the Australian Government through the Super Science Initiative.
More details:

About iVEC: iVEC was established in 2001 to foster and promote scientific and technological innovation through the provision of supercomputing and eResearch services to the research community, commercial organizations and government agencies. In 2009, iVEC was charged with establishing and operating the $80 million Pawsey Center at Technology Park in Kensington.

About ICRAR: ICRAR launched in 2009 and is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia providing research excellence in the field of radio astronomy. The Murchison Widefield Array is led by ICRAR Deputy Director Professor Steven Tingay from ICRAR’s Curtin University node and commenced full operations on the 9th of July, 2013.

About the MWA: The MWA is a precursor telescope to the Square Kilometre Array and is approximately 10% of the size of the phase one low frequency SKA (SKA-low) that will be constructed in Western Australia from 2016. The phase 1 SKA-low will produce up to four gigabytes of data per second, and the full SKA-low will produce up to ten times that.

About the SKA: The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

Members of the SKA Organisation as of May 2013:

  • Australia: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Canada: National Research Council
  • China: Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Germany: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
  • Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics
  • Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
  • New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development
  • Republic of South Africa: National Research Foundation
  • Sweden: Onsala Space Observatory
  • United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council

Associate member:

  • India: National Centre for Radio Astrophysics

SKA website:

SKA Australia website:

ICRAR website:

MWA website:

PIO Contacts
Kirsten Gottschalk
Media Contact, ICRAR
Phone: +61 8 6488 7771, mobile: +61 438 361 876

David Satterthwaite
Marketing and Communications Manager, iVEC
Phone: +61 8 6436 8959 

Science Contacts
Professor Andreas Wicenec
Professor of Data Intensive Research, ICRAR
Phone: +61 8 6488 7847, mobile: +61 431 832 602

Associate Professor Chen Wu
Research A/Professor for Data Intensive Computing
Phone: +61 6488 6725

Contact for SKA Organisation
William Garnier
SKA Chief Communications Officer
Phone: +44 (0) 161 306 9613 and + 44 (9) 7814 908 932