Adventures in Space (Data)

Hundreds of international engineers, astronomers, physicists, politicians and industrial leaders are gathered at The Banff Centre in the Rockies this week. What are they discussing? A radio telescope so powerful it would allow E.T. to not only phone home, but also video conference with thousands of his family members.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is the largest scientific endeavor in mankind's history. Twenty countries and 67 institutions are involved in the development and construction of this telescope, which will actually be made up of thousands of receptors covering a section of land measuring 1 million square metres (or one full square kilometre). The purpose? To give scientists a better understanding of how stars first formed, prove if Einstein's theory of relativity is correct, and show how the Universe's magnetic fields flow '€” as well as give UFO fans a better chance to meet our intergalactic neighbours :). As one SKA 2011 delegate noted, this will be the greatest astronomical development since the invention of the telescope 400 years ago.

Construction of the array will begin in 2016. One of the biggest developmental challenges will be processing the data from this leading-edge instrument. Four hundred years ago, a scientist would look into the sky with a single telescope and simply write down what he/she saw. Today, with the potential for millions of telescopes pointing into the sky and collecting petabits of information, no one set of eyes will be able to process it all. Software needs to be created to process the data and a system needs to be devised for transmitting the huge data sets to a distributed community of researchers.

This leads to CyberSKA, Canada's contribution to this international project. Funded by CANARIE and led by the University of Calgary's (UofC) Department of Physics and Astronomy, CyberSKA will use Cybera and CANARIE's advanced fibre-optic networks to investigate and build the digital infrastructure required for transferring SKA data. This task is not an easy one, as Shannon Jaeger of the UofC's Centre of Radio Astronomy notes. Each data set from each telescope can be around 50Gb in size, she says. How do you begin to create a system to transfer that much data?

This may call for a dramatic re-think of how we process large data sets. It will no doubt be a time-consuming, complex problem to work around. But CyberaSKA's solution will prove incredibly beneficial, not only to the SKA project, but for other industries that need to access, visualize and process huge data sets (such as resource management, medical research, energy, and information technology).

We could be on to something big here.

What other benefits do you see from this technology? Are you interested in getting involved? Leave a comment below.