Solving a mystery of modern astrophysics

13 Sep 2021 - 6 min

What to do when you want to upgrade your telescope in order to solve one of the mysteries of modern astrophysics, but face the problem of overwhelming data volume? You call the Netherlands eScience Center of course. ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, did exactly that, to help them test a theory about Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). 

Research Software Engineers at the eScience Center love nothing more than a juicy research challenge. And a challenge of – literally – cosmic proportions is all in a day’s work, too. Like our recent AA Alert project, which sought to solve one of astrophysics’ most pressing puzzles: what are Fast Radio Bursts?  

In order to find the answer once and for all, one of the world’s biggest radio telescopes was upgraded. Except that there was one small problem. Which was in fact a big problem. A data problem.  The telescope now produces a veritable tsunami of data. Too much for any one person, let alone computer … to compute. The data rate is so high that the data cannot be kept for long, so the search for FRBs has to be done in real-time. 

Satellites - Fast Radio Bursts
Up, up and away: Fast Radio Bursts are among the most energy intensive events in the universe, and thanks to the help of a team at the eScience Center, they’re now much better understood.

Which is where the eScience Center came in. While ASTRON had the hardware, the firmware and a top team of specialists with a strong theory ready to go, they needed some additional software expertise to find a way to process the data once it came in.  

The eScience Center team that lead the charge consisted of two Research Software Engineers (RSEs); Alessio Sclocco  and Jisk Attema. They worked closely together with a team at ASTRON and the University of Amsterdam, including project lead Joeri van Leeuwen and PhD student Leon Oostrum, who is now an RSE at the eScience Center. Together they proposed a way to find the mystery radio bursts using algorithms. The team developed and coded tailored software that could make the relevant data analysis in real time.  

“For us, writing code for a GPU cluster that is fast enough is really hard,” says Leon. “But in the end, Alessio used a tool to automatically optimize the software for the hardware we were working with to get maximum performance.” 

The project required eScience Center RSEs to combine our expertise in building software together with ASTRON engineers who build the hardware and firmware. And finally, the work had to connect to data that ASTRON and their systems produce.  

“It was an intensive project with a lot of working together,” says Leon. “Think of between ten and twenty people in the same room for a week, tying all the components together.” 

Of course, software development and programming is the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, but the real fun happens when systems are powered up and the data starts to get processed. FRBs are some of the most energy-intensive events that happen in the cosmos, and the bursts may come from a highly magnetized, isolated neutron star. 

“One of the project highlights was finding the first real signal from sky once everything was turned on. In July 2019, we officially started searching for big signals, and found one that first week,” recalls Leon. Since that moment, Westerbork has been finding FRBs routinely. 

FRBs’ origin is still an unsolved question. This is where the current paper made a breakthrough. Westerbork finds FRBs so quickly that it has time to send an automatic signal to another Dutch radio telescope, LOFAR, after a detection. This allows LOFAR to quickly observe the same point in the sky and see radio bursts from the same source. Moreover, LOFAR observes a different wavelength of light, and can see different things than Westerbork does. 

So what did the team ultimately discover? Was the riddle solved? Well, yes! The results were in stark contrast to predictions from a popular model for the origin of these FRBs, which has now been ruled out. Astronomers at ASTRON discovered that a simple binary wind cannot cause the Fast Radio Burst after all. They also showed that FRBs are free from shrouding material. That transparency further increases their importance for cosmology.  

Read more about these findings, which featured recently in Nature

Got a niggling research challenge of your own that you’ve been itching to explore, regardless of which domain? We might just know a place to find out more. The eScience Center regularly puts out calls for proposals, where you can find out how to collaborate with us. Check out our diverse range of current projects for more inspiration too.