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University Team Up To Explore Space Through Big Data

Big Science, Big Data: UWC collaborates to tackle 21st century astronomy

When the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) comes online, it will be a telescope unlike any other – 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument, able to survey the sky thousands of times faster and more accurately than ever before, and it will be very, very big. The SKA name comes from the fact that it will be composed of a variety of smaller instruments that form a telescope with a combined collecting area of about one square kilometre.

Powerful enough to sense radio waves from objects millions or even billions of light years away from Earth, the SKA telescope will allow scientists to look further back into the history of the universe than ever before, and will provide much more detail on how the universe has evolved over the last 14 billion years.

The SKA will address questions that can only be answered using a radio telescope. Scientists will use it to help us understand how stars and galaxies form and change, how primordial gases interacted, how matter is distributed in space, and even what “dark matter” and “dark energy” are. SKA researchers will be hunting for new planets, testing Einstein’s relativity, mapping galaxies, investigating cosmic magnetism, and even listening for radio communications from potential alien civilizations.

And that’s not even counting the discoveries that we can’t even imagine right now…

Inter-University Institute for Data Analysis: The Avengers of Astronomy

But tackling all those questions requires collecting, processing and analysing truly vast amounts of data - too much data for traditional statistical and computational methods.

How much data? Well, consider this:

  • The dishes of the SKA will produce 10 times as much information as global internet traffic.

  • The SKA central computer will have the processing power of about one hundred million PCs.

  • The data collected by the SKA in a single day would take nearly two million years to playback on an ipod.

This is Big Data at its biggest - too big for one institution to handle.

The international SKA organisation includes 11 countries – and South African scientists are playing a leading role in many SKA projects. To coordinate that, UWC has joined forces with the University of Cape Town, North-West University and the University of Pretoria to form the Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA).

The IDIA brings together researchers in the fields of astronomy, computer science, statistics and eResearch technologies to create data science capacity for leadership in the MeerKAT SKA precursor projects, other precursor and pathfinder programmes and SKA key science. The IDIA will also establish an SKA-driven Data-Intensive and Research and Training programme.

“Universities that rise to the challenge of the data revolution will be globally competitive in this new era of data intensive research,” says Prof Andrew Russell (Russ) Taylor, IDIA’s founding director, who currently holds a joint UWC/UCT South African Research Chair. “We are creating a monster. SKA will be the biggest data producer in the world.”

Why go to all this trouble?

Big Science, Big Data, Big *Money* - will answering questions about the heavens really be worth all that? How will it affect our day-to-day lives?

Mostly, not much - at least, not directly.

But nobody knows what can happen when money is poured into basic research (the kind that doesn’t seem likely to benefit us materially right away). New discoveries at the core of science shake up the system, leading us into whole new ways of understanding and managing the world.

Then there’s job creation, building skills, a cash influx into schools and services in the regions surrounding the SKA projects, and all those other kinds of political things that have a tangible impact.

Additionally, there’s the way it opens our minds to greater things, enriching our culture and spreading African pride. SKA may not directly save lives or feed the hungry, but it could allow kids to see that anything is attainable. It would allow children worldwide to dream a bit bigger, and it can help us all see the universe in a new way.

“The answers to our biggest science questions will be in this data: life, the universe and everything,” notes Prof Taylor. “And it will answer questions we haven’t even asked yet.”

“The scientific knowledge that will come from the SKA - knowledge about our Universe and our place in it - will be available to everyone, without charge, and it will enrich humanity in the way that music, literature, art and other forms of knowledge enrich us,” adds UWC’s Prof Roy Maartens, SARChI Chair in Astrophysics. “The SKA is an investment in the knowledge and culture of all humanity.”

Isn’t that an investment worth making?