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Stellar Collaboration: NSF Invests in Cyberinfrastructure Institute to Harness, Share Cosmic Data

observatory in the artic

Over the past several decades, astronomers and physicists have collaborated to gather information from several different sources, or “messengers” — including but extending beyond light to things such as electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, cosmic rays and, most recently, neutrinos—to study the cosmos.

Merger of two neutron stars in space

In October 2017, the Gravitational Wave Laboratories LIGO and VIRGO announced the first observation of gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars on Aug. 17, 2017, in an event called GW170817. This event is a significant discovery with impact on nuclear astrophysics. It is the long-sought “smoking gun” observation that directly indicates a possible site for the rapid neutron capture process thought to be responsible for many of the heavy elements in nature. Cortesy photo.

A team of six Michigan State University astronomers and astrophysicists is part of a multi-institution effort funded by NSF to develop the concept for a Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics, or SCIMMA, that would allow researchers from around the globe to collectively share multi-messenger observations—transcending the capabilities of any single existing institution or team.

Known as multi-messenger astrophysics—and named one of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 10 big ideas for future investments in science and engineering—this new science tracks high-energy particles pelting Earth, particles passing through space and ripples in the fabric of space-time to answer questions about some of the most extreme events in the universe. As telescopes and experiments worldwide pull in more and more data, efforts are underway to create an infrastructure where all this information can be combined, analyzed and shared in real time.

“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 (LIGO), IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and multiple cosmic ray and neutrino observatories.

“SCIMMA is supported by two of NSF’s Big Ideas—Harnessing the Data Revolution and Windows on the Universe,” added Nigel Sharp, program director in the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The project, “A Framework for Data Intensive Discovery in Multi-Messenger Astrophysics,” is supported by a two-year, $2.8 million NSF grant under the direction the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), Pennsylvania State University—University Park and the University of Washington.

Artists rendering of blazar in space

An international team of scientists, including two MSU physicists, recently found the first evidence of a source of high-energy cosmic neutrinos, ghostly subatomic particles that can travel unhindered for billions of light years from the most extreme environments in the universe to Earth. In this artistic rendering, a blazar is accelerating protons that produce pions, which produce neutrinos and gamma rays. Neutrinos are always the result of a hadronic reaction such as the one displayed here. Illustration courtesy of IceCube/NASA

“Multi-messenger astrophysics is a data-intensive science in its infancy that is already transforming our understanding of the universe,” said Patrick R. Brady, UWM physics professor and director of the Leonard E. Parker Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics, “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.”

MSU is one of the primary universities involved in the IceCube Neutrino Observatory—which is home to the world’s most successful neutrino telescope—and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an international collaboration of more than 300 scientists in 12 countries. In addition, it has an astronomy and astrophysics group that is strong in theoretical modeling and that has direct access to advanced computational research and analysis through MSU’s Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research (ICER) and the MSU Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering (CMSE).

“With expertise in astrophysical theoretical modeling, software sustainability and with IceCube Observatory leadership all centered at MSU, we are well-positioned to play a key role in the development of SCIMMA,” said Claudio Kopper, associate professor of high-energy physics/experimental in the MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy and principal investigator of MSU’s grant sub-award under the project. “These efforts will allow researchers from different experiments and telescopes doing multi-messenger astronomy to get together and not only compare their data but work with all of the data coming in from different telescopes and experiments.”

Other MSU faculty members participating in the project with Kopper are Sean Couch, (co-PI), astronomy/CMSE; Tyce DeYoung, (senior personnel), high-energy physics/IceCube project; Darren Grant, (senior personnel), high-energy physics/IceCube project; Wolfgang Kerzendorf (MSU co-PI), astronomy/CMSE; and Brian O’Shea, (senior personnel), iCER director/theoretical astrophysics/CMSE.

The project’s two-year conceptualization phase began September 1. In addition to 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.

Project collaborators are (in alpha order): Columbia University; Cornell University Center for AdvancedComputing and the Department of Astronomy; Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network; 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, University of Texas at Austin; University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

For more information, visit https://scimma.org/.

Banner image: The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, is the first detector of its kind, designed to observe the cosmos from deep within the South Pole ice. Encompassing a cubic kilometer of ice, IceCube searches for subatomic particles called neutrinos, which provide information to probe the most violent astrophysical sources such as exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts and other cataclysmic phenomena. Michigan State University is one of the primary universities involved in the IceCube Observatory, an international collaboration of more than 300 physicists from 52 institutions in 12 countries. Photo courtesy of IceCube Observatory.

John Schumacher, Val Osowski and Layne Cameron  Via MSU TODAY

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