The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) Correlator, a large supercomputer that was built in Chile to help radio astronomers, will be able to perform 17 quadrillion operations per second. It took 48 months to install it, 5,000 meters above sea level.
The Correlator supercomputer was designed to run one of the world’s most complex ground telescopes. The supercomputer will combine space signals from deep space captured by the radio telescope’s dozens of antennas. ALMA is expected to be completed in March 2013, and is already operating on a limited basis. It will use an array composed of 66 antennas to gather electromagnetic signals from deep space. In order to produce useful images and information, astronomers needed a supercomputer to process the signals and make the array function as a single telescope. This supercomputer was built to handle signals from 2016 possible antenna pair combinations, and creating it was no easy task. The thin atmosphere makes it harder to cool components, and data storage drives don’t work reliably.
Correlator engineers optimized the design and placement of the resistors, capacitors, and other components to reduce energy use and ease cooling. Data from the Correlator is transmitted down to an ALMA support facility located at 2,900 meters, where it is stored on special disks.
The Correlator was assembled in four stages, starting in 2008. The machine is too specific for ALMA’s needs to become a model for supercomputing, but some of the designs of the computer’s components could be of interest to engineers designing new general-purpose supercomputers.