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The National Science Foundation is investing in next-generation infrastructure to support explorations of the cosmos using massive datasets from cutting-edge facilities.

NSF invests in cyberinfrastructure institute to harness cosmic data

Posted on October 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The National Science Foundation is investing in next-generation infrastructure to support explorations of the cosmos using massive datasets from cutting-edge facilities, bolstering a 21st-century global approach to astronomy known as” multi-messenger astrophysics.”

To help realize the ambitions of this new field, the NSF has awarded $2.8 million to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and eight collaborating organizations, including Penn State, to further develop their concept for a Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics (SCIMMA).

Multi-messenger astrophysics combines theory and observations of light, gravitational waves, and particles to understand some of the most extreme phenomena in the Universe. For example, the observation of gravitational waves and light from the collision of two neutron stars in 2017 helped explain the origin of many of the heavy elements our technologies depend on, allowed a single-step measurement of the expansion of the Universe, and confirmed the long-suspected connection between neutron-star mergers and gamma-ray bursts.

Multi-messenger astrophysics is a data-intensive science in its infancy that is already transforming our understanding of the Universe.

The SCIMMA effort at Penn State is being led by Derek Fox, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and Chad Hanna, associate professor of physics and of astronomy and astrophysics and Freed Early Career Professor. They are leading a team within the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos and the Institute for CyberScience at Penn State to advance the way astronomers and physicists interact with real-time astronomical data in order to gain a deeper understanding of the physical phenomena underlying extreme objects like neutron stars and black holes.

“SCIMMA will provide a platform for a diverse set of scientists to interact with seemingly disparate astronomical datasets and to communicate their findings,” said Hanna. “In multimessenger astrophysics, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and we therefore expect this effort to lead to discoveries that would not otherwise be possible.”

“Moving toward a coordinated multi-institutional approach to discovering, observing, and interpreting multi-messenger sources is a natural next step for the community,” said Fox. “This project will leverage long-standing efforts at Penn State, via our NSF-supported Astrophysical Multimessenger Observatory Network, to coordinate leading observatories so as to discover and understand multi-messenger sources.”

The goal of SCIMMA is to develop algorithms, databases, and computing and networking cyberinfrastructure to support multi-messenger observations and interpretation by fluid, global, and heterogeneous teams that transcend the capabilities of any single existing institution or team.

“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,” said Amy Walton, program director, NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. These investments include the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and multiple cosmic ray and neutrino observatories.

The SCIMMA project, “A Framework for Data Intensive Discovery in Multi-Messenger Astrophysics,” is under the direction of Patrick R. Brady, 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,” said 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.”

“The SCIMMA project team is excited to play a part in making NSF’s ‘Big Ideas’ a reality,” says Mark Mone, UWM chancellor, “and is working diligently to bring scientists and cyberinfrastructure experts closer together to harness the data revolution and open windows on the universe.” 

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; Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin; and the University of Washington.

The project’s two-year conceptualization phase began Sept. 1. Besides enabling seamless co-analysis of disparate datasets by supporting the interoperability of software and data services, this phase will include the development of novel education and training curricula designed to enhance the STEM workforce.

For more information, visit the SCIMMA website.

The Penn State Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos is a multidisciplinary institute of researchers dedicated to the study of the most fundamental structure and constituents of the Universe. Thanks to the sustained support from the Eberly College of Science for over two decades, IGC researchers have been able to make seminal contributions at the forefront of fundamental science, including the physics, astrophysics, and mathematics of gravitational waves.

Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience, one of five interdisciplinary research institutes within the Office of the Vice President for Research, brings researchers together to develop and apply innovative, high performance computation methods. ICS operates and continues to expand a world-class high-performance computing system enabling Penn State researchers to carry out advanced simulation and statistical modeling, data analysis, data mining, machine learning, and more.


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