Las Cumbres Observatory to help develop a Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Astronomical Data

Oct 24, 2019

Artist's illustration of two merging neutron stars. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet.

Las Cumbres Observatory is one of nine organizations jointly awarded a $2.8 million grant by the National Science Foundation to further develop the concept for a Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics (SCIMMA).

Multi-messenger astrophysics combines observations of light, gravitational waves, and particles to understand some of the most extreme events in the Universe. A recent example is the observation of gravitational waves and light from the collision of two neutron stars in 2017 that helped explain the origin of heavy elements. This event also allowed an independent measurement of the expansion of the Universe and confirmed the association between neutron-star mergers and gamma-ray bursts. Las Cumbres Observatory co-discovered this new type of explosion, called a kilonova, and obtained key measurements to determine its nature.

The goal of SCIMMA is to develop algorithms, databases, and computing and networking cyberinfrastructure to support multi-messenger observations and their interpretations. It will allow the combined work of the many global teams to transcend the capabilities of any single existing institution.

“For thousands of years, light has been the only tool we astronomers had to probe the cosmos” says Andy Howell, a staff astronomer at Las Cumbres Observatory and adjunct faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara. “But now we’re in a new era where we’re also detecting particles that have come to Earth from across the Universe, and we’re even sensing distortions in spacetime. We’ll need scientists from many different disciplines to come together to combine these extraordinary types of data in new ways.”

“SCIMMA is bringing data scientists, computer scientists, astronomers, astro-particle physicists, and gravitational-wave physicists together to leverage NSF investments in large astronomical facilities and cyberinfrastructure,” says Amy Walton, program director of the NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. These investments include the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), and multiple cosmic ray and neutrino observatories.

Las Cumbres Observatory is a network of 23 robotic telescopes positioned around the world, linked together to operate as a single instrument. At its headquarters in Santa Barbara, California, LCO builds the telescopes and develops software to help both telescopes and astronomers communicate with each other.

Howell continues, “SCIMMA is the perfect fit for Las Cumbres Observatory. We’ve already written software that allows telescopes to automatically gather, process, and combine data, and it allows astronomers to see and interact with their observations from anywhere in the world. We’re excited to bring huge new data sets into the mix and help make inferences about the universe even more quickly.”

The SCIMMA project, entitled “A Framework for Data Intensive Discovery in Multi-Messenger Astrophysics,” is under the direction of Patrick R. Brady, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) physics professor and director of the Leonard E. Parker Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics, and co-PIs Chad Hanna (Penn State), Mario Juric (University of Washington), and David L. Kaplan (UWM).

“Multi-Messenger Astrophysics is a data-intensive science in its infancy that is already transforming our understanding of the universe,” explains Brady. “The promise of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics, however, can be realized only if sufficient cyberinfrastructure is available to rapidly handle, combine, and analyze the very large-scale distributed data from all types of astronomical measurements. The conceptualization phase of SCIMMA will balance rapid prototyping, novel algorithm development, and software sustainability to accelerate scientific discovery over the next decade and more.”

Project collaborators include Columbia University; Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing and the Department of Astronomy; Las Cumbres Observatory; Michigan State University; Pennsylvania State University-University Park; University of California, Santa Barbara; National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin; and the University of Washington.

The project’s two-year conceptualization phase began September 1, 2019. This phase will enable the seamless co-analysis of disparate datasets by supporting the interoperability of software and data services. Work will also begin on the development of novel education and training curricula designed to enhance the STEM workforce.

Las Cumbres is a nonprofit organization that relies on funding from both public and private sources, including philanthropists, private foundations, the NSF, and NASA.

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Andy Howell

Dr. Andy Howell, Staff Scientist at LCO and Adjunct Faculty at UC Santa Barbara.

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