January 22, 2024 - by CSCS
In January 2022 Switzerland officially joined a great adventure — the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), an international organization building the world’s biggest radio telescope to unlock some of the greatest mysteries of the universe.
Currently under construction, by the end of the decade there will be hundreds of dishes in South Africa at the mid-frequency range and more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas erected in Australia. This next-generation radio astronomy facility will look as far back as the Cosmic Dawn, when the very first stars and galaxies formed, tackling some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time and, with an expected operational phase of at least 50 years, it will be one of the cornerstone physics machines of the 21st century.
As part of the collaborative global project with sixteen countries currently participating, the Swiss SKACH consortium is made up of ten Swiss academic institutions working on five key programs: Science, Data Science, Computing Platforms and Infrastructure, Instrumentation, and Education and Public Outreach.
Switzerland has committed more than 33 million CHF until 2030 for the construction and early operation of the Array, which will collect unprecedented amounts of data, requiring the world’s fastest supercomputers to process this in near real time. Swiss researchers will be fundamental in this work processing around 650 petabytes per year in areas such as cosmology, dark energy, and astrobiology.
Much of this will happen at a planned Swiss SKAO Regional Centre for data distribution and analysis at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS), providing an integrated infrastructure to provide data access and analytical tools accessible to the international community. In this effort, CSCS is lending its expertise from many years of experience in handling and moving large amounts of data, while also preparing everything to make portions of the generated data available for independent research.
“As the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre, our expertise goes beyond the technical aspects of how to develop and operate such research infrastructure,” said Victor Holanda Rusu, computational scientist at CSCS. “It also includes handling and navigating international research collaborations that require research infrastructure to be developed and operated.”
In addition, SKACH computer scientists are working directly with astrophysicists to create scalable simulations, novel imaging techniques, automated scheduling, eco-computing, and HPC capabilities using research in both artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“We are a multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary team,” explained Carolyn Crichton, SKACH Consortium Director. “This is part of our magic, part of the reason we’ve contributed so much to the global effort in a relatively short space of time.”
Indeed, with funding from the Platform for Advanced Scientific Computing (PASC) scientists were recently awarded the largest ever allocation of node hours on Europe’s LUMI-G supercomputer to conduct a simulation looking at the role of turbulence and gravity in the universe. This simulation experiment is helping to drive the development of programming codes, enhanced by high-performance computing and machine learning techniques, to handle large data streams such as the SKAO will collect.
“It’s exciting for Switzerland to be part of the biggest global radio astronomy effort yet, seeking answers to some of the biggest remaining mysteries in astrophysics including the cosmological model, galaxy evolution, cosmic magnetism and the origins of life,” said EPFL Professor Jean-Paul Kneib, who is also the Swiss Scientific Delegate to the SKAO Council. “From academia to business, the SKACH consortium is ensuring that Switzerland is punching above its weight in this extraordinary international endeavour.”
Find more information in the interview with the CSCS experts Pablo Fernandez and Victor Holanda Rusu who are involved in SKACH, and in the interview with Sebastian Keller and Jean-Guillaume Piccinali from CSCS who supported the associated PASC project.
The current members of the SKACH Consortium are:
- École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
- Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zurich)
- Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz (FHNW)
- Universität Zürich (UZH)
- Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (ZHAW)
- Universität Basel (UniBas)
- Université de Genève (UniGE)
- Haute École spécialisée de Suisse Occidentale (HES-SO)
- Centro Svizzero di Calcolo Scientifico (CSCS)
- The International Space Science Institute (ISSI)