What secrets does the universe hold? Why is the universe expanding – and how will it end?
To uncover these mysteries requires a novel instrument producing reams of data looking back billions of years, massive computing power and a collaboration of researchers across Canada. And with help from the BCNET Research and Education Network, increased connectivity is speeding up the time it takes researchers to make new discoveries.
The CHIME telescope, short for Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, has been scanning our skies far beyond our galaxy since 2018. Now the largest radio telescope on the continent, CHIME is being used to track the expansion of our universe and to map cosmic events including fast radio bursts (FRBs) – with more revelations on the horizon.
“We’re on track to creating the largest volume three-dimensional map of the universe ever made by any instrument. We are really trying to figure out what makes the universe expand as it does, and what made it be as big and as old as it is. This will help us understand the fate of the universe.”
DR. MARK HALPERN
CHIME Principal Investigator and Professor | University of British Columbia
In addition to studying dark energy, the name physicists have given to the accelerating expansion of the universe, CHIME has detected more than 2,000 FRBs – compared to only a dozen known before it began observing. It also monitors all the galactic pulsars you can see from Canada.
“Fast radio bursts are these really bright, very short bursts that last maybe a millisecond,” Halpern explained. “They’re far enough away that light takes a couple billion years to get here, and nobody knows what they are, so it’s a bit of a riddle. What are they? The universe is a surprising and complicated place.”
Speeding Up Time to New Discoveries
Equipped with five truckloads of computers, CHIME collects avalanches of data. Up until recently, these files were uploaded to hard drives and physically shipped hundreds of kilometers by courier to UBC, then using a high-speed network, transferred to Compute Canada servers so that scientists could comb through the information.
Today, thanks to the BCNET Advanced Research and Education Network, the telescope now has a direct, high-speed connection to Compute Canada and UBC servers, opening up possibilities previously not conceivable.
“CHIME has absolutely stunning internal total data rate – more than 10 times the world’s internet traffic,” Halpern explained.
“Things we can do now, we couldn’t have even dreamed of. There were projects we would have said, I’m sorry, we don’t have the bandwidth. What this has allowed to do, beyond our main running of our experiments, is to think about and try new things.”
Research Engineer | University of British Columbia
Earlier this year, BCNET worked with UBC and CHIME partner universities to take on the installation of the network, which has now been online since March.
By speeding up processes and making it possible to send data directly from the telescope, the network has created efficiencies and helped improve operations. It also frees up time for researchers to dig into the data – and to conduct more work on-site.
“Before this link, it really limited us. Even things we wanted to do on-site, we were very limited,” said Don Wiebe, UBC research associate, physics and astronomy. “It has enabled a lot of new analysis and operational tasks that we can now do at the telescope site that wasn’t possible. The amount of support we’re getting from BCNET, UBC Advanced Research Computing (ARC) and UBC IT has been phenomenal.”
Big Step Up in Reliability
Even during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new connection ensured operations at the CHIME telescope could continue.
“During COVID-19, our access was restricted and we couldn’t get researchers on site, nor to ship disks as easily and as frequently. Having this high-speed link in place provided pseudo real-time access to data which enabled us to troubleshoot computational algorithms and issues with data much faster,” explained Amiri.
It takes a great deal of collaboration to comb through such enormous quantities of data. The CHIME project team includes researchers from UBC, University of Toronto and McGill University, located at the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory.
An estimated 150 researchers are collaborating on CHIME, which equates to about one-third of Canadian astronomy researchers. And that’s not including the scientists situated around the world, with CHIME data being used for cross-correlation with other distant telescopes.
Together, history is in the making – faster than ever before.
“We are very pleased to support the innovative Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment and the revolutionary new Canadian radio telescope with high-speed connectivity, said Bala Kathiresan, president and CEO, BCNET. "This is yet another example of BCNET’s Advanced Research and Education network enabling world-class research and education in British Columbia. Our network enables data-intensive collaborative research like the CHIME Experiment. In cooperation with partners of the Canadian National Research and Education Network (NREN), we are able to connect to a global web of more than 100 NRENS around the world.”
“This has been an incredible opportunity to connect so many groups together. That’s what we aim to do, to provide that single point of contact for the research groups. The CHIME folks now have access to everything that’s available, and that’s a huge game-changer.”
Manager of Research Systems | University of British Columbia ARC