The sky’s the limit for users of theSkyNet

Thanks to Pete Wheeler, UWA for sending in this article:
Thanks to a new initiative called theSkyNet, you don’t need a supercomputer to help collect data for the next generation of radio telescopes.

This ambitious citizen science project uses a global network of privately owned computers to process astronomical data arriving from galaxies, stars and other distant objects located across the universe.

WA’s Science and Innovation Minister, John Day, launched theSkyNet in September 2011.

The project soon attracted almost 20,000 hits to theSkyNet.org website, and nearly 3,000 members in the first day. A few weeks later, the website surpassed 100,000 hits and 5,000 members.

Members sign up and donate their spare computing power to theSkyNet, an activity which is not only rewarding, it’s also fun. Members receive “credits” for processing data and donating time on their computer, which earns them trophies they can share with their networks through Facebook. Users participate in the project as individuals but can also form or join alliances to help process data as a group.

There are also some very real-world rewards on offer, with the most attractive being the opportunity to visit the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the Mid-West of Western Australia. This remote and radio-quiet site is home to several next generation radio telescopes and is earmarked as the potential site for the proposed Square Kilometre Array.

With support from the WA State Government, theSkyNet is an initiative of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture of Curtin University and The University of Western Australia.

According to ICRAR’s Outreach and Education Manager, Pete Wheeler, the project aims to involve people in the discovery process while also raising awareness of radio astronomy and providing a real resource that astronomers can use to advance our understanding of the universe.

“This is a very exciting project for us as it’s a unique opportunity to bring our research and public outreach activities together and get the public involved in science,” he said.

“We were hopeful that the name of the project would generate interest, but the level of interest and uptake we experienced so soon after launch was beyond our wildest expectations.”

So far, theSkyNet has been using data collected by the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales to refine the system and demonstrate that the results produced by theSkyNet are scientifically useful and accurate.

Next, theSkyNet will use a reprocessed version of this data to create a new catalogue of radio galaxies before moving on to larger data sets in preparation for the enormous volumes of information that will flow once telescopes such as the CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder come online in the next couple of years.

ICRAR Director, Professor Peter Quinn, said: “Radio astronomy is a data intensive activity and as we design, develop and switch on the next generation of radio telescopes, the supercomputing resources processing this deluge of data will be in increasingly high demand.”

At any one time, around 4,000 machines around the world are online and contributing to theSkyNet. On average, the network is performing one million processing tasks per day, placing theSkyNet on par with a supercomputer with between 15 and 20 TFlops of computing power. The cost to build a single supercomputer with this sort of capacity is currently around $1.5 million.

Rather than the cost and years of planning needed to build and run such a machine, theSkyNet runs with only minimal cost and has appeared virtually overnight. Using the power of the Internet to connect people to the excitement of scientific discovery makes cost effective, efficient and environmentally sensible use of readily available computing resources that might otherwise be wasted.

This type of community computing is especially useful when the time taken to process the data is not an issue. Rather than using valuable supercomputing time in facilities such as the iVEC Pawsey Centre in Perth, data that can be processed in “slow time” can be off-loaded to a distributed network like theSkyNet.

“The key to theSkyNet is having lots of computers connected, with each contributing only a little, but the sum of those computers can achieve a lot,” Professor Quinn said.

For further information and to sign up, visit theSkyNet website at www.theSkyNet.org