A new petascale supercomputer built to study the universe is one of the fastest calculating machines in the world, and certainly the fastest of its kind. The supercomputer is part of ALMA, a new radio telescope that is claimed to be “largest ground-based astronomical project in existence.” ALMA, which stands for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, is an international project, which includes partners from Europe (European Southern Observatory, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Bordeaux), North America (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), and Japan (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan). The Joint ALMA Observatory, based in Santiago Chile, manages the project. The ALMA radio telescope is a collection of 66 high-precision antennas (parabolic dishes that act as receivers), strewn over the 5,000 meter-high Chajnantor desert plateau in northern Chile. The dry air and elevation makes it a particularly suitable spot for capturing signals from space in the millimeter and sub-millimeter radio spectrum. At those wavelengths, the antennas can detect the so-called “cool Universe,” molecular gas and dust as well as residual radiation from the Big Bang. The antennas can be set to capture signals in a variety of configurations, such that the distance between them can vary between 150 meters to 16 kilometers. That gives the ALMA telescope something akin to a “zoom” capability, as well as very high sensitivity and resolution. As a result, it should be able to produce images 10 times sharper than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. The challenge of multiple radio antennas is to make them behave as a single receiver, and for that you need some hefty number crunching — thus the need for a supercomputer. The one built for ALMA is actually a special-purpose device designed to correlate faint signals from multiple sources. Because of its function, the supercomputer is actually known as “the correlator.” The supercomputer jargon was added later by the public relation guys to bring attention to its exceptional calculating prowess.
And exceptional it is. The correlator deliver 17 quadrillion operations per second. That's 17 petaOPS (not petaFLOPS). If you discount these are not floating point operations, the system operates at a level comparable to Titan, the fastest general-purpose supercomputer in the world, and the current title-holder on the TOP500.