WA astronomers to crowdsource data processing

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WA astronomers to crowdsource data processing
Three ASKAP antennas in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: WA Department of Commerce

TheSkyNet taps social networking for spare computing power.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has asked the public to donate  spare computing power to science through a piece of open source Java technology.

Like the 12-year-old SETI@Home project, TheSkyNet linked participating computers to form a powerful distributed network for deciphering data from radiotelescopes.

Computers would connect to TheSkyNet through Nereus client-server technology in their web browsers or as a background application.

The software, marketed as a form of cloud computing, was developed by British company eMedia Track in partnership with physicists at the Oxford University.

It issued TheSkyNet computers with small packets of data from Australian radiotelescopes – including “The Dish” at Parkes and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) – to detect stars, galaxies and other objects in the universe.

Participants earned virtual credits and trophies for doing set amounts of work and could compare their contributions to those of other individuals or groups.

ICRAR outreach manager Pete Wheeler said TheSkyNet aimed to incorporate aspects of social networking and games to engage users.

“It all comes down to providing the users with a really good experience,” he said, describing a mixture of entertainment, competition and an awareness of contributing to real research outcomes.

“Part of what we’re doing with the project is to tap into social networking. If we can make it go viral, then our user base will really snowball.”

Wheeler said the project was intentionally named after the villainous Skynet from the Terminator movie series to tap into the series’ cult following.

Project coordinators were also developing a “SkyMap” that allowed participants to visualise the area of the universe that their computers were analysing and encouraged them to “take over” new areas.

In the coming months, ICRAR also planned to release data processing targets for individual and group participants. The first to reach the group target would receive an evening with astronomers with telescopes to view the night sky.

The first to reach the individual target would receive a trip to Western Australia’s Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory, which housed the ASKAP.

Participants also would be encouraged to share their progress on Facebook, but the ICRAR had no plans to develop software for the Facebook platform as they deemed it too expensive and too competitive an area.

ICRAR expected no security issues to come from use of the Nereus client, which sandboxed its operations within a Java applet.

TheSkyNet was launched this week by WA Science and Innovation Minister John Day. It was funded by the WA Department of Commerce and IT consultancy Systemic.

ICRAR director Peter Quinn said the project could raise awareness of the $2 billion, international Square Kilometer Array project and complement purpose-built supercomputing facilities like Perth’s Pawsey Centre.

Crowdsourced science around the world

Wheeler said he began working with eMedia Track on TheSkyNet after learning of Quinn’s separate, general discussions with the company.

He said the BOINC software platform used by the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI@Home project attracted more of a scientific following.

TheSkyNet targeted a far wider section of the online community, he said, and would evolve based on user feedback.

“I think BOINC and SETI@Home have done a fabulous job in getting millions on users on board, but … it’s quite dry in terms of what they offer their users,” Wheeler said.

“We need to engage in slightly different was than we have in the past. Social networking has really come along; that’s just waiting to be tapped.”

As the project progressed, ICRAR planned to introduce a more technical “phase two” that would allow citizen scientists to more actively participate in the cross-identification of radio sources.

ICRAR also planned to organise coding competitions that challenged high school and university students to write algorithms for the project.

As TheSkyNet’s user base grew, Wheeler hoped it could join the Zooniverse group of citizen science projects, which included online galaxy classification project Galaxy Zoo and transcription project Ancient Lives.

“We really see this project as a starting point; it’s going to evolve,” he said.

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