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PC-based spectrometer powers latest radio telescope

Posted: 24 Feb 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:radioastronomy? fourier transform spectrometer? rf engines? ip core? fpga?

The Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy has built a 40MHz digital Fast Fourier transform spectrometer that it claims will greatly improve the performance and cost of radio telescopes. RF Engines Ltd, a U.K. signal-processing design firm, supplied key intellectual-property (IP) cores.

The institute will use the FFT spectrometer in a number of programs to continuously monitor the radio spectrum in real-time. "We expect the first observation based on the new spectrometer to take place midyear this year," said Bernd Klein, leader of the digital group at the Max Planck Institute.

RF Engines said its work with the institute could give it a foothold in the radio astronomy market. The Newport, Wales, company's blocks have heretofore been used mainly in communications equipment, instrumentation and military applications. The Max Planck Institute used the company's IP blocks to develop a wideband channelizer design based on Xilinx Inc. FPGAs.

Using commercial-off-the-shelf cards and RF Engines' cores in FPGAs, institute engineers built an FFT spectrometer that can fit into a standard PC, replacing the huge rack-mounted systems traditionally used, Klein said.

Radio telescope systems have gone through a string of generational design changes over the past 20 years. The analog filter-based spectrometer gave way to an acoustic optical version, later supplanted by autocorrelation spectrometers, Klein said. The digital FFT spectrometer, which Klein called the fourth-generation (4G) radio telescope, is designed to handle more frequency channels than previous systems and to see finer resolutions of spectrum.

"FFT-based systems are very important for us because we can reach a much better frequency resolution at greatly reduced power consumption," he said.

Also, cooling has always been "extremely critical," Klein said, since sub-mm astronomy must be done in extremely dry atmospheres at an altitude of 5,000 meters. Institute engineers implemented RF Engines' system-on-chip IP cores on a Xilinx Virtex II 3000 FPGA.

This implementation made it possible to adapt the design, achieving the performance of an ASIC approach with the efficiency, flexibility and cost of an FPGA-based design. It took "only four to six weeks" to put the IP cores from RF Engines into FPGAs and verify that they worked well, said Klein. The institute is at present integrating the whole system.

Radio astronomy experts at the Max Planck Institute said the FPGA implementations could vastly improve the quality of their research at a relatively low cost, since they open up a standard-product-based approach to designing high-performance spectrometers.

The deal with the institute marks RF Engines' entry into the radio astronomy market. "We are pleased to find out that Max Planck Institute has been able to use our off-the-shelf IP [cores] almost without a lot of modifications," said John Summers, VP of sales and business development at RF Engines. Describing RF Engines' expertise, Summers said, "We are very good at slicing and dicing the spectrum in very fine divisions."

As radio telescopes become real-time digital instruments covering a large swath of spectrum, high-performance signal-processing cores are needed to "chop the spectrum in very fine resolution," said Simon Underhay, technical-sales executive at RF Engines. Such resolution will allow astronomers to "detect even the smallest changes or fleeting incidents that arise within the spectrum."

Once the Max Planck Institute completes the integration and testing of the 40MHz spectrometer," we are already looking at extending the bandwidth capacity from the initial 40MHz concurrent bandwidth up to 1GHz," Summers said.

RF Engines was spun out of the Libra Design Associates Consultancy, a specialist in high-performance DSP designs for the communications and instrumentation markets, in 1999. The startup inherited Libra's patents.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times

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