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IFCA participates in SKA Observatory's computational challenge to study the birth of the first stars

Artist's impression created from animations of the SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa / SKAO

Together with the IFCA, other centres have contributed their experience in big data to face one of the challenges of the future observatory, which will investigate the phase of the universe in which stars were formed

November 24, 2023 

The Instituto de Física de Cantabria (IFCA), a joint centre of the CSIC and the Universidad de Cantabria (UC); the Centro de Supercomputación de Galicia (CESGA), a joint centre of the CSIC and the Xunta de Galicia; and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA) of the CSIC, have participated in the latest edition of the SKA Data Challenges, organised by the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), to prepare the scientific community for the new analysis methods that will be required for the data generated by the SKAO telescopes. 

Once completed, this infrastructure will surpass the best existing radio astronomy facilities in terms of sensitivity and observing speed, generating around 16 Terabits per second. Building the SKAO telescopes and exploiting the amount of data they will generate requires international collaborations. The Spanish participation in the SKA project is coordinated by the IAA with the participation of IFCA and CESGA. 

The seven-month deadline for the teams to analyse the data and deliver the results of this third challenge, which focused on one of the observatory's key scientific cases: the epoch of reionisation, the phase in the history of the Universe when the first stars formed, ended on 31 October. Twelve supercomputing centres offered their resources for the challenge, with a total of 234 participants. The Spanish community has been represented by CESGA and IAA, as resource providers; and by IFCA, as leader of one of the participating teams coordinated by Diego Herranz, researcher of the Cantabrian centre and member of the SKAO Science Working Group on the reionisation epoch.

CESGA has provided support to researchers from the universities of Chosun (South Korea), Xidian (China) and McGill in Montreal (Canada), giving them access to the FinisTerrae III supercomputer, both its CPU and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). The IAA-CSIC has supported a team led by the KLE Technological University (India) and the Spanish team led by the IFCA, offering the computational resources of the prototype of the SKAO Regional Centre in Spain (SPSRC).

IFCA and IAA have carried out the scientific analysis of the Data Challenge data. The IFCA has provided its expertise in image processing, cleaning the data cubes provided by SKAO of galactic contaminants using polynomial fitting and principal component analysis techniques. Once the images had been processed, the IAA estimated the three-dimensional power spectrum of the cosmological signal of neutral hydrogen, with the aim of identifying the key moment in the history of the Universe when the interstellar and intergalactic medium began to reionise, as a consequence of the appearance of the first stars. In addition to the CSIC researchers, the team has had the collaboration of scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA), the Instituto de Astrofísico de Canarias (IAC) and the European University of Madrid, who have collaborated in the tasks of detection and identification of compact galactic and extragalactic sources, and in the interpretation of the interferometric data of the Data Challenge.

Teams have an additional month to make their codes available to the collaboration, following the guidelines of the guide developed by SKAO to facilitate the reproducibility of scientific results. Those teams that meet this objective will receive recognition for their good scientific practices.

The role of the Spanish community in the previous edition of the SKA Data Challenge resulted in the work of an international team led by the IAA and supported by the SPSRC, which came in fifth place (out of 40 participants) and was the only one to win the gold medal for reproducibility. This award recognises the team's effort in documenting the software code generated, including tools to make it easy to install, run and understand, thus making it easy for the software to be reused by other scientific teams.  

The final results of the current edition of the SKA challenge are expected to be published in the coming months after evaluation of the data obtained by the different teams.

Map of the different analysis groups participating in the Data Science Challenge 3. / SKAO​.

About IFCA
The Institute of Physics of Cantabria (IFCA) is a joint centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Cantabria (UC). Its mission is to advance in its contribution to scientific knowledge and in its collaboration with the different social agents, thus contributing to promote the participation and optimal use of technological progress at regional and national level. It is oriented towards research in basic sciences to understand the components of nature, from elementary particles (Particle Physics) to the largest structures of the Universe (Galaxies, Cosmology and Space Science), as well as the complex collective behaviour of matter (Nonlinear Physics). This activity is complemented by laboratory work, technical and computing services, and is supported by a high-performance computing infrastructure. The IFCA houses the IFCA Data Processing Centre and the Altamira supercomputer, a Singular Scientific-Technical Facility (ICTS) that is part of the National Supercomputing Network (RES). This research institute has grown steadily in all its aspects, being a María de Maeztu Centre of Excellence for the period 2018-2022.

The Centro de Supercomputación de Galicia (CESGA) is a non-profit public foundation whose board of trustees includes the Xunta de Galicia and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). CESGA is the centre for computing, high performance communications and advanced services of the Galician Scientific Community, the University Academic System and the CSIC. CESGA is part of the Spanish Supercomputing and Data Network (RES), a Singular State Scientific and Technical Installation (ICTS). CESGA's mission is to contribute to the advancement of Science and Technology, through research and application of high performance computing and communications, as well as other information technology resources, in collaboration with other institutions, for the benefit of Society.

The Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA) is a centre of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). Its mission is to deepen our knowledge of the cosmos and to bring it closer to society by conducting cutting-edge astrophysical and space science research, promoting technological development through the construction of new instrumentation and disseminating our research among the scientific community and the general public through outreach activities.  The IAA-CSIC is a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, an accreditation that recognises centres that carry out cutting-edge basic research and are among the best in the world in their area of work.

About SKAO and SPSRC
The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is an intergovernmental organisation that will operate two radio telescopes under construction in South Africa and Western Australia. Once the telescopes are built, SKAO will be the world's largest generator of public data, which will be pre-processed at two computer centres located in South Africa and Australia and from there sent to an interconnected network of SKA Regional Centres (SRCs). The SRCs will carry out the scientific activities, and to this end will provide access to data, computational resources and analysis tools regardless of the location of the users, as well as support and training. The CRSs will therefore constitute the scientific core of the SKA. In Spain, with the strategic support of the Severo Ochoa programme of the IAA-CSIC, the development of a prototype CRS, the SPSRC, committed to the principles of Open Science, an area in which Spain is playing a relevant role in the framework of the SKA project, has been underway since 2018.

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