ARCHIVED - CANFAR connects astronomical dots
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July 01, 2009— Victoria, British Columbia
Astronomers were once stereotyped as lone insomniacs tending optical telescopes. But now they do most of their research in "virtual organizations" - far-flung national and international collaborations of diverse people and institutions that use the Internet to exchange and crunch vast stores of digital data fed by telescopes of many kinds around the planet.
The Canadian Advanced Network for Astronomical Research (CANFAR) aims to adapt existing Canadian scientific computing facilities to make virtual collaborations more productive for Canadian university astronomers, says Dr. David Schade, who manages the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC) at the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA) in Victoria. The University of Victoria and University of British Columbia are both major partners on the project, led by UVic's Professor Chris Pritchet.
"Internationally, astronomy has very well-developed infrastructure for managing information technology, literature and publications, and data - right from the telescopes," says Dr. Schade. "Astronomers have a very open data sharing policy."
However, trade in digital astronomical data is massive and growing. Sharing and processing this data efficiently is key to making new discoveries. Where a single major observatory once produced a few photographs per night, it may now collect 100 gigabytes of raw data.
The CADC currently ranks as the world's largest astronomical data centre by volume: it holds about 400 terabytes of data (one terabyte comprises 1,000 gigabytes), and gathers two more terabytes each week. Each year, it serves about 2,500 active professional astronomers - a quarter of the world's total.
Canada has already assembled powerful scientific computing infrastructure on regional and national grids linked by the CANARIE Network, which serves universities, government labs, research institutes and other organizations. Dr. Schade calls CANARIE "a wonderful research backbone," allowing Canadian researchers to share networked facilities and services.
Through CANFAR, astronomers hope to rewire their access to the computational grid through CANARIE virtually, giving them more immediate, hands-on interactive data sharing and processing. The CANFAR infrastructure will act as a broker for access to the computational grid. This is necessary because most astronomers process their data using customized, dedicated software programs that they have painstakingly built and debugged themselves, sometimes over years, such that the programs cannot be run directly on the grid.
CANFAR would form a kind of virtual bridge between CANARIE's powerful networking and computing systems, and astronomers' software. This bridge could also leverage potential efficiencies in CANARIE's existing networking and data storage facilities, letting astronomers run their custom systems on more powerful equipment.
Pilot development will address the needs of three high-priority virtual astronomy projects. Once the core system works, it will be expanded piece by piece for a wider Canadian user base. CANFAR will then fit into a developing world wide, Internet-based "virtual observatory movement" to define international standards for harnessing networked computers around the world to drive major astronomical advances forward.
"Astronomy actually has large parts of infrastructure in place, but we need to join the parts together," says Dr. Schade. "We have fabulous infrastructure, we have a grid and we have virtual organizations. Those organizations need to be linked by high speed Internet. If we succeed, this will be a very low-cost way to deliver enormous value to astronomers in the university research community."
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