NSF invests in cyberinfrastructure institute to harness cosmic data

The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and nine collaborating organizations, including the University of Washington, $2.8 million for a two-year “conceptualization phase” of the Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics.

SCIMMA’s goal is to develop algorithms, databases and computing and networking cyberinfrastructure to help scientists interpret multi-messenger observations. Multi-messenger astrophysics combines observations of light, gravitational waves and particles to understand some of the most extreme events in the universe. For example, the observation of both gravitational waves and light from the collision of two neutron stars in 2017 helped explain the origin of heavy elements, allowed an independent measurement of the expansion of the universe and confirmed the association between neutron-star mergers and gamma-ray bursts.

The institute would facilitate global collaborations, thus transcending the capabilities of any single existing institution or team. It is directed by Patrick Brady, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics. One of three co-principal investigators on the project is Mario Jurić, a UW associate professor of astronomy and senior data science fellow at the UW eScience Institute.

As part of SCIMMA, UW researchers will work to develop a “transient alert” system that will alert researchers around the world about cosmic events picked up, for example, by astronomical observatories.

“These events could include phenomena like collisions between black holes and neutron stars detected via gravitational waves, exploding supernovae detected by neutrino emissions, and other energetic phenomena detected in visible wavelengths of light,” said Jurić, who is also a faculty member with the UW DIRAC Institute. “UW researchers have demonstrated these technologies as part of the Zwicky Transient Facility project, where the UW-built ZTF Alert Distribution System transmitted more than 100 million alerts over the past two years.”

UW researchers will also help develop a prototype remote analysis platform, which will allow scientists to analyze archived multi-messenger astrophysics using future resources provided by SCIMMA, said Jurić.

SCIMMA’s two-year conceptualization phase began Sept. 1. Among its goals are enabling seamless co-analysis of disparate datasets by supporting the interoperability of software and data services. In addition, over the next two years SCIMMA will develop education and training curricula designed to enhance the STEM workforce, according to an announcement by the NSF.

“Multi-messenger astrophysics is a data-intensive science in its infancy that is already transforming our understanding of the universe,” said Brady. “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.”

Additional project collaborators include Columbia University; the Center for Advanced Computing and Department of Astronomy at Cornell University; Las Cumbres Observatory, a California-based network of observatories; Michigan State University; Pennsylvania State University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information, contact Jurić at mjuric@astro.washington.edu.

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