As humanity looked to the night sky and reflected on its place in the universe, it built telescopes to acquire the knowledge it needed. The telescopes grew bigger and bigger and multiplied into great radio telescope arrays. A question arose: how it would process all of that acquired data? The answer was FPGAs, lots of FPGAs.
The Square Kilometer Array telescope (SKA), scheduled to be built in Africa and Australia in the next decade, will be the largest and most sensitive radio instrument ever built. It will use thousands of high-frequency antennas and millions of mid and low-frequency antennas, spread over thousands of kilometers, to emulate a single radio telescope. The SKA's unprecedented sensitivity will enable the telescope to study the formation and evolution of the universe, surveying billions of galaxies and analyzing the hypothetical effects of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will also search for planets orbiting stars within our own galaxy as well as listen for radio signals potentially originating from extra-terrestrial life.
When complete, it is expected to generate around 1 exabyte of data per day (1018 bytes, or a billion gigabytes). This massive amount of data creates a real problem on how to store and process it.
The first challenge faced by large radio telescope arrays is to collect all the data from the individual telescope dishes for use by the main processing center. One solution is to use high-throughput interfaces such as optical links with SFP+ or QSFP connectors. These interfaces are available on FPGA Mezzanine Cards (FMCs) and enable you to transmit and receive massive amounts of data between FPGA devices (between sensors and processing elements, or between elements within the system). The optical fiber network collects the data from the remote sources and congregates it to a single location.
The next challenge is to process all of that gathered data. This is where multi-FPGA systems become necessary. Their high-throughput interfaces enable the aggregation of a multitude of data channels on the same platform. When this is combined with their extreme processing capabilities, they become very powerful multi-channel beamformers and correlators.
Nutaq's Kermode XV6 board, with its 8 SX475T Virtex-6 FPGAs, has been specifically designed with the Square Kilometer Array telescope in mind. The National Research Council of Canada and Nutaq developed it to be part of the SKA's Advanced Focal Array demonstrator and is deemed "well suited to SKA1-scale beamforming, correlation, as well as other I/O intensive signal processing" by the SKA team". 1 The Kermode board is capable of sustaining a full-duplex data rate of over 1000 Gigabytes per second, making it able to handle large data streams, including the one generated by the SKA.
1 : https://www.skatelescope.org/blog/kermode-fpga-board/