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Looking Deep into our Universe with AWS

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia has recently announced a new scientific finding using innovative data processing and visualization techniques developed on AWS. Astronomers at ICRAR have been involved in the detection of radio emissions from hydrogen in a galaxy more than 5 billion light years away. This is almost twice the previous record for the most distant hydrogen emissions observed, and has important implications for understanding how galaxies have evolved over time.

Figure 1: The Very Large Array on the Plains of San Agustin Credit: D. Finley, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Working with large and fast growing data sets like these requires new scalable tools and platforms that ICRAR is helping to develop for the astronomy community. The Data Intensive Astronomy (DIA) program at ICRAR, led by Dr Andreas Wicenec, used AWS to experiment with new methods of analyzing and visualizing data coming from the Very Large Array (VLA) at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico. AWS has enabled the DIA team to quickly prototype new data processing pipelines and visualization tools without spending millions in precious research funds that are better spent on astronomers than computers. As data volumes grow, the team can scale their processing and visualization tools to accommodate that growth. In this case, the DIA team prototyped and built a platform to process 10s of TBs of raw data and reduce this data to a more manageable size. They then make that data available in what they refer to as a ‘data cube.’

Figure 2: An image of the full data cube constructed by ICRAR

This image shows the full data cube constructed by the team at ICRAR. The cube provides a data visualization model that allows astronomers, like Dr. Attila Popping and his team at ICRAR, to search in either space or time through large images created from observations made with the VLA. Astronomers can interact with the data cube in real-time and stream it to their desktop. Having access to the full data set like this in an interactive fashion makes it possible to find new objects of interest that would otherwise not be seen or would be much more difficult to find.

ICRAR estimates that the amount of network, compute, and storage capacity required to shift and crunch this data would have made this work infeasible. By using AWS, they were able to quickly and cheaply build their new pipelines, and then scale them as massive amounts of data arrived from their instruments. They used the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) Spot market, accessing AWS’s spare capacity at 50-90% less than the standard on-demand pricing, thereby reducing costs even further and leading the way for many researchers as they look to leverage AWS in their own fields of research.  When super-science projects like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) come online, they’ll be ready. Without the cloud to enable their experiments, they would still be investigating how to do the experiments, instead of actually conducting them.

We are privileged to work with customers who are pushing the boundaries of science using AWS, and expanding our understanding of the universe at the same time. In Figure 3, you can see an artist’s impression of the newly discovered hydrogen emissions from a galaxy more than 5 billion light years away from Earth. To learn more about the work performed by the ICRAR team, please read their media release.

Figure 3: An artist’s impression of the discovered hydrogen emissions

To learn more about how customers are using AWS for Scientific Computing, please visit our Scientific Computing on AWS website.

Images provided by and used with permission of the International Centre of Radio Astronomy Research.