CIRADA Project Description - Unlocking the Radio Sky with Next-Generation Survey Astronomy


Astronomy is entering a golden age, in which we seek to understand the complete 13.8-billion year evolutionary history of the Universe. Canadian astronomers are playing an essential role in this program, by building powerful new radio telescopes that will soon collect enormous data sets covering huge swaths of the sky. This work has created an opportunity for Canada to establish itself at the vanguard of the upcoming revolution in radio astronomy, culminating in the billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that is Canadian astronomy’s highest funding priority for the coming decade. However, these developments have created their own substantial challenge: to make new discoveries, we must find ways to convert the resulting peta-scale raw data sets into advanced science-ready products.

In this project, we will build the new hardware enhancements, research databases and science ready data products needed to enable ground-breaking Canadian science from next-generation radio astronomy facilities on the path to the SKA. We focus our efforts on three instruments for which Canada has already made substantial investments: the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), the US-based Very Large Array (VLA), and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), each of which plays a complementary role in revealing how the Universe has evolved. These advanced data products can be used to track the development of galaxies over cosmic time, to understand the origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism, to study the extreme physics of stellar death and its aftermath, and to reveal the overall process by which the Universe’s supply of gas is steadily converted into stars. Development of this infrastructure will also allow us to train the next generation of Canadian physicists, software developers and data scientists, and will establish the capacity needed to host the Canadian SKA Data Centre that will be required beyond 2025. We will publicly release all our data products, catalogues and tools to greatly amplify and broaden the science output of these new world-class facilities, allowing a full return on the capital investment of $290M (including $40M in Canadian contributions) already made in these telescopes.

GLOBAL LEADERSHIP: Astronomy is the highest impact discipline across all Canadian science fields; more than $450M of federal funding has been invested in Canadian astronomy in the last five years (including $34M through CFI). As a result, Canada has constructed several next-generation astronomy facilities about to begin operations and has developed the supercomputing expertise needed to process and analyse the resulting data flows. Radio astronomy is a discipline in which Canada has particular strength and standing. In the last 15 years, Canadian radio astronomers have comprehensively mapped the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy’s interstellar gas, have used rotating pulsars to perform precision tests of General Relativity, and have developed the new technique of “radio intensity mapping” that provides a unique probe of the Universe’s expansion. Building on this heritage and success, our program of technology development now brings together six Canadian universities, all of which have made radio astronomy a major focus for ongoing investment and expansion. We will pursue this work in close partnership with the National Research Council (NRC), Compute Canada, the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and our international collaborators.

Our team offers an outstanding record of scientific research, technical innovation and training of highly qualified personnel (HQP), world-class expertise in high-performance computing, software development and advanced data handling, and a strong existing leadership role in major international astronomy programs. Collectively, our ten Principal Users have authored or co-authored more than 1300 publications, which have received more than 60,000 citations. This record includes more than 150 papers with >100 citations, and 43 papers published in Nature or Science. Our team members have been recognised with Sloan Fellowships, Canada Research Chairs, Fellowships in the Royal Societies of Canada and London, and election to the US and Australian Academies of Sciences. Our team runs a large and intensive training program for HQP, including technicians, research associates, undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. We have trained hundreds of young researchers and innovators, around 50% of whom have gone onto successful academic careers, with the other half having been recruited into high-tech jobs in areas such as medical physics, data analytics, patent law, defence, genetics, and environmental forecasting.

ENHANCING RESEARCH CAPACITY: The VLA, CHIME and ASKAP will provide basic data products (BDPs) such as raw data, images, and calibration products. Here we will create advanced science-ready data products (SRDPs) such as source catalogues, time-series analyses, and searchable data archives. Research topics that can only be pursued using our SRDPs, all aimed at better understanding the evolutionary history of our Universe, are as follows:

• We will produce SRDPs from VLA data that can be used to derive a complete picture of how galaxies, their stars and their supermassive black holes evolve, to provide a dramatic new view of the flares and explosions that mark the endpoints of stellar evolution, and to open a new way of studying the evolution of the Universe’s magnetism over cosmic time. • Using CHIME’s enormous sensitivity, we will produce SRDPs that can be used to perform sensitive searches for stellar corpses over the entire northern sky, to monitor the evolving and violent Universe in real time, to provide an unprecedented view of the origin and evolution of the Milky Way’s magnetic field, to study the evolution of gas in galaxies, and to revolutionise the statistical modelling needed for cosmological studies of the Universe’s history. • Our ASKAP SRDPs can be used to produce a vast statistical sample of how mass and angular momentum evolve in nearby local galaxies, to facilitate the first large study of how galaxies interact, and to derive an unprecedented view of the interplay between gas reservoirs, star formation and black hole activity in evolving galaxies across a range of environments.

We will adopt a tightly connected multi-institutional approach between Canadian universities, the NRC, and international partners. We will develop infrastructure that leads to a broad and compelling science return from a single set of radio astronomy surveys; the need to reprocess the same data repeatedly in different ways, meeting distinct science goals, requires both diverse expertise and close collaboration across traditionally separate science topics. We will implement the processing routines needed to ingest specialised radio data, will derive source identifications, polarization measurements, alerts, and other enhanced products, and will archive all outputs for wide community access, resulting in SRDPs that will be a substantial step forward over anything else available. This technology development will allow us both to answer specific high-impact science questions, and to establish Canadian capability for hosting the even more advanced data sets from the SKA.

We will organise this work into four major activities:

1. Science Ready Data Products: Personnel who will develop and deliver an integrated software suite that processes telescope data and produces the advanced SRDPs.

2. Pre-processor Systems: Dedicated hardware at telescope sites that processes existing data flows in new ways to capture additional information and to enable new SRDPs.

3. Bulk Data Storage: Purchase of dedicated storage on Compute Canada resources in excess of what can be provided through the Resource Allocation process.

4. Cross-Matching & Public Accessibility: Integration of VLA, CHIME and ASKAP SRDPs and related catalogues into a common database, and facilitation of access for other researchers.

Sustainability will be a core component of our design philosophy for all the above activities. For this project to be considered a success, not only must the SRDPs enable the specified science goals, but there must be broad long-term uptake and utilisation of these products by the astronomy community. We will therefore design our software and virtual computing architectures to be modular and portable, while our databases and software tools will be housed long-term by the NRC’s Canadian Astronomical Data Centre in coordination with Compute Canada.

BENEFITS FOR CANADIANS: We will develop infrastructure that will allow Canadian astronomers to hold key roles in the marquee experiments to be pursued with a new generation of telescopes. Through this work, we can maintain global excellence for Canadian astronomy, develop world-leading clusters and partnerships, and provide world-class multi-disciplinary training. There are a host of existing examples that demonstrate the commercial benefits of radio astronomy, including WiFi (initially developed through research on fast radio transients), drug development for malaria (using the distributed computing platform developed for SETI@home), and medical imaging (based on radio aperture synthesis). The infrastructure that we will develop will have a diverse range of potential benefits in advanced data management for medicine, finance and remote sensing, for which reliable automated processing and cataloguing are critical. We will have strong support from our host institutions in identifying and pursuing any commercial opportunities.