Grid Technology helps Astronomers keep pace with the Universe

“Intelligent Agent” computer programs are roaming the Internet and watching the skies. It may sound like science fiction, but these programs, using Grid computing technology, will help astronomers detect some of the most dramatic events in the universe, such as massive supernova explosions. The Agents, created by the “eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research” (eSTAR) project, have been deployed on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii. The work is being announced at a conference in Strasbourg on 14th and 15th October.

Dr. Alasdair Allan, on the eSTAR team at the University of Exeter, said “The universe currently does things faster than we can respond to them. To study the most rapid and violent events in the universe, we need to be able to follow them quickly.”

As well as supernova explosions, many other astronomical events happen suddenly and unpredictably. These include the detection of near-Earth asteroids as they move across the sky, rapid changes in the swirling gases being swallowed by black holes, and the subtle changes in the brightness of stars which may indicate planets in orbit around them.

The Intelligent Agent programs communicate with telescopes and each other using technology designed for the Grid – the “next generation Internet”. They make observations with the telescopes, which they can analyse and immediately follow up with further observations, without the need for human intervention.

Prof. Tim Naylor, who led the eSTAR team and is also at the University of Exeter, said “We’re creating a network of telescopes which can respond automatically to objects of great astronomical importance.”

Although this is not the first time that telescopes have been automated, or connected to the Internet, Dr. Allan explains “What is so important here is that we have developed an intelligent observing system. It thinks and reacts for itself, deciding whether something it has discovered is interesting enough to need more observations. If more observations are needed, it just goes ahead and gets them.”

Frossie Economou of the Joint Astronomy Centre, which operates UKIRT, said “Our plan is for the Agents to send messages to astronomers’ mobile phones, and even pictures if the phone supports them. That way, you’ll be able to follow events at the telescope, no matter where you are in the world.”

Dr. Allan continues “The Agents can detect and respond to the rapidly changing universe faster than any human, and make decisions to observe an object much faster than would otherwise be possible. Only then need they tell their human masters what they’re doing.”

The Agents were recently put through their paces for the first time on a large research-class telescope: the 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. An Agent took live images with UKIRT, and compared them with previous infrared maps of the sky. It detected a dwarf nova – a star which experiences sudden flares in its brightness.

It wasn’t just technical hurdles that the team had to overcome in order to bring this complex system online. As Dr. Andy Adamson, Director of UKIRT, said “On the test night itself, we even had an earthquake on the island, but everyone remained undaunted. Both the eSTAR Agent and the telescope worked as planned.”

In the next few months, the eSTAR Agents will spread from UKIRT to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (also operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre). After that, the team will expand the network to include fully robotic telescopes such as the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma and the Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia.

So are the eSTAR team planning to put astronomers out of a job? Dr. Allan says not: “The Agents can be used to assist human observers, instead of replacing them entirely – augmenting their abilities to do science quicker, faster, and more reliably.”

The eSTAR work is being presented in talks by Alasdair Allan and Frossie Economou at the Astronomical Data Analysis Software & Systems conference in Strasbourg, on the 14th and 15th October respectively.

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This area deals with the fundamental laws and building blocks of nature and how they interact, the properties and the behavior of matter, and research into space and time and their structures.

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