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Big Blue chips in on Big Bang research

Is there anybody out there? IBM and Dutch group are designing a chip that may help figure it out.

What happened at the Big Bang? IBM and a European astronomy organization are going to try to listen in on it to see.

Astron and IBM are collaborating on designing a microprocessor that will help antennas collect weak radio signals from deep space. Some of the signals could be 13 billion years old and provide clues to the source of dark matter and the origin of the universe.

It's part of Astron's Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope project, IBM said. The SKA will be linked to millions of antennas collecting radio signals from space. The antennas will be spread over a large surface area of the globe, but in the aggregate, they will form a square kilometer's worth of collection area.

Antenna field

Astron will also build a precursor to SKA that will consist of 25,000 antennas placed in the Netherlands and France. (Astron is a Dutch acronym for the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy.)

The microprocessors will essentially help the antennas capture the signals, filter out extraneous data and then convert the signals into data. Astrophysicists will then analyze the data to look for patterns. The weakest signals are the prize in this project, because they will be the oldest.

"The circuitry will not create much noise. We want to make sure that the signals that we capture don't get lost in the noise of the chip," Raj Desai, vice president for aerospace & defense in IBM's Technology Collaboration Solutions group, said in an interview. "The weaker the signal, the more information you are likely to get."

The chips will be made on IBM's silicon germanium process and have a typical peak frequency, or speed, of around 200GHz. They will be made on the 130-nanometer process.

IBM and Astron started working on the design of the chip in October this year, and the first prototypes delivery will come out in the first half of 2007, Big Blue said. A second prototype is planned for later in that year.

"These need to be produced in the millions, so they need to be low power and low cost," Desai added.

Astron and IBM have worked together before. The Dutch organization used IBM's Blue Gene for its Low Frequency Array software telescope.