PC users around the world will today be asked to contribute spare CPU cycles as part of theSkyNet project to further the science of radio astronomy.
TheSkyNet, being run by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), in conjunction with Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, will draw on potentially thousands of donor PCs to create a ‘source finder’.
In effect, donor PCs will form a distributed computing engine to scan data from telescopes and search for sources of radiation at radio wavelengths similar to those emitted by stars, galaxies and other objects in the universe.
According to ICRAR’s outreach and education manager, Pete Wheeler, the ‘citizen science’ project will also help raise awareness of the forthcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, radio astronomy, the ICRAR itself and further astronomy research.
“We will be running data sets on [SkyNet] ... and primarily using it as a source finder — looking for radio length emission coming from objects out in the universe and also running simulated data sets so the researchers, as they ramp up to deal with bigger and bigger cubes of data, can overcome some of the challenges they need to in order to start processing things like ASKAP [Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder] data in the future,” he said.
“The first test will be testing HIPASS [HI Parkes All Sky Survey] data from the Parkes telescope in NSW. It is a well established set of data which has been processed by others with confirmed results.
“What we will do with the results from SkyNet is compare them with those from [Parkes] and show and demonstrate the products from SkyNet are scientifically credible, accurate and reliable.”
Wheeler defined a “cube of data” as being the combination of the right ascension and declination for the spatial position of the sky being observed plus a third dimension corresponding to the frequency of the emission being observed.
“You can think of this cube as a pile of brightness maps piled up along the frequency axis,” he said.
Following a successful run of the HIPASS data, and a fine-tuning of SkyNet’s algorithms and code, the project will move on to simulating cubes of data similar to those expected to flow off ASKAP.
“Data for ASKAP will be in the region of a one terabyte cube and that is a very large cube of data," Wheeler said.
"We will simulate something around that size here at ICRAR, populate it with galaxies process it and learn some lessons from it which will apply once data from ASKAP starts coming off the telescope.”
Wheeler said that as SkyNet was an experimental project ICRAR was uncertain as to the likely take up from the general public, but said that ideally several thousand users would be regularly contributing to the project within 12 months.
“There are a number of international citizen science projects such as Galaxyzoo and Moonzoo which draw on the Zooniverse project but ours is a little bit different to that as it involves distributed computing, but so dissimilar — we hope to have this project become part of the Zooniverse suite if they will have us,” he said.
To encourage uptake, SkyNet would also include social media and gaming elements — such as being awarded digital trophies for achieving certain processing milestones — to encourage a sense of participation and community.
“Announcements and achievements, if the user chooses, will flow on to their social networks and people will see that the person is contributing to the SkyNet project and we will hopefully pick up more users that way,” Wheeler said.
Project participants also had a choice of how to participate in SkyNet: Either anonymously through simply having their browsers open on the SkyNet site, or through downloading a dedicated app to run in the background on their PC.
“The idea is to be unnoticeable ... we don’t want to slow your computer down,” he said.
"The load on your computer will adjust depending on what you are doing with it. The idea is to have lots of machines each doing a little and adding up to a lot.”
Wheeler said users would also be able to set limits on the number of megabytes which travelled to and from their PCs. Security was also not an issue for users.
“If they are just contributing through the browser alone then all of this is working in the Java sandbox and is not triggering any security protocols because the information — the data coming in and going out — is never stored on the machine,” he said.
“If they chose to download the background application then they will have to accept there will be an install, but there is no security risk associated with that. TheSkyNet network will only ever be used for astronomy data; never anything else.”
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