See this supernova remnant photo processed by an Australian supercomputer

Within 24 hours of gaining access to the first stage of Australia’s newest supercomputing system, researchers processed a series of radio telescope observations, including a very detailed image of a supernova remnant.

The very high data rates and huge data volumes of next-generation radio telescopes such as ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder) require high-performance software running on supercomputers. That’s where the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Center comes in, with a newly launched supercomputer called Setonix – named after Western Australia’s favorite animal, the quokka (Brachyurus Setonix).

ASKAP, which consists of 36 satellite dishes that work together as a single telescope, is operated by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO; the observational data it collects is transferred via high-speed fiber optics to the Pawsey Center to be processed and converted into science-ready images.

In a major step on the way to full deployment, we have now demonstrated the integration of our ASKAPsoft processing software on Setonix, with stunning visuals.

Traces of a dying star

An exciting result of this exercise was a fantastic image of a cosmic object known as the supernova remnant, G261.9+5.5.

Estimated to be over a million years old and located 10,000-15,000 light years from us, this object in our galaxy was first classified as a supernova remnant by CSIRO radio astronomer Eric R. Hill in 1967, using Parkes’ observations from CSIRO. Radio telescope, Murriyang.

Supernova remnants (SNR) are the remnants of powerful explosions of dying stars. Material ejected from the explosion is blasted outward into the surrounding interstellar medium at supersonic speeds, sweeping up gas and any material it encounters along the way, compressing and heating it in the process.

Additionally, the shock wave would also compress the interstellar magnetic fields. The emissions we see in our radio image of G261.9+5.5 come from highly energetic electrons trapped in these compressed fields. They carry information about the history of the exploded star and aspects of the surrounding interstellar medium.

The structure of this remnant revealed in the deep ASKAP radio image opens up the possibility of studying this remnant and the physical properties (such as magnetic fields and high-energy electron densities) of the interstellar medium in unprecedented detail.

Putting a supercomputer to the test

The image of the SNR G261.9+05.5 may be beautiful to look at, but processing data from ASKAP’s astronomy surveys is also a great way to test the supercomputer system, including hardware and software treatment.

We included the supernova remnant dataset for our initial testing because its complex features would increase processing challenges.

Data processing, even with a supercomputer, is a complex exercise, with different processing modes triggering various potential problems. For example, the SNR image was made by combining data collected at hundreds of different frequencies (or colors, if you prefer), giving us a composite view of the object.

But there is also a treasure trove of information hidden within the individual frequencies. Extracting this information often requires creating images at each frequency, which requires more computing resources and more digital space to store.

Although Setonix has adequate resources for such intense processing, a major challenge would be to establish the stability of the supercomputer when faced with huge amounts of data day in and day out.

The key to this first rapid demonstration was the close collaboration between the Pawsey Center and members of ASKAP’s scientific data processing team. Our teamwork has enabled us all to better understand these issues and quickly find solutions.

These results mean that we can discover more from ASKAP data, for example.

More soon

But this is only the first of two installation stages for Setonix, with the second to be completed later this year.

This will allow data teams to process more data from many projects in a fraction of the time. This, in turn, will not only allow researchers to better understand our Universe, but will undoubtedly uncover new objects hidden in the radio sky. The variety of scientific questions that Setonix will allow us to explore in a shorter time frame opens up many possibilities.

This increase in computing capacity benefits not only ASKAP, but all Australian-based researchers in all fields of science and engineering who can access Setonix.

As the supercomputer becomes fully operational, so does ASKAP, which is currently completing a series of pilot surveys and will soon undertake even larger and deeper surveys of the sky.

The supernova remnant is just one of the many features we have now revealed, and we can expect many more stunning images and the discovery of many new celestial objects to come soon.


Wasim Raja, Research Scientist, CSIRO and Pascal Jahan Elahi, Supercomputing Applications Specialist, Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jack C. Nugent