High performance computing fuels space discoveries at ALMA Observatory

How HPC technology with human-driven oversight is producing fulfilling work and once-in-a-lifetime astronomical exploration.

By thought leadership, Dell Technologies 

By 2031, the largest comet discovered outside our solar system is expected to approach Earth. A powerful telescope in the remote Atacama Desert, Chile, measured the size of this heavenly body—it’s roughly seven times the length of Manhattan.

Learning more about the mega comet is just one of the impressive successes the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory has enjoyed. ALMA, an international collaboration between the Republic of Chile and three major scientific institutions—the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO); the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s National Institutes of Sciences (NINS)—also delivered the first image of a black hole 55 million light years from Earth.

Complex, intensive and fast computations

Spectacular discoveries such as these don’t happen by chance. Astronomy requires powerful instrumentation but also needs complementary technology to arrive at insights. The telescope at ALMA is 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, the predecessor to NASA’s headlining James Webb.

Since astronomy is a complex science that requires processing very weak signals from sources in space, it relies on intensive computing power under the hood from Dell Technologies, says Jorge Ibsen, head of the ALMA Department of Computing. To achieve the observatory’s mission of satisfying humankind’s curiosity about the universe, ALMA collects and calibrates raw data and routes high-quality sets to Santiago and onward to scientific communities in the United States, Germany and Japan so they can answer key questions about the universe’s origins.

The observatory has a limited timeframe—usually 30 days—to curate large volumes of information. Therefore, it leans on high-performance computing (HPC) to automate some of the processing, allowing enough time for human-driven oversight as needed. “Astronomical data is very demanding in terms of data storage and computing power [for automating curation],” Ibsen says. “We’re always adding capabilities, which in turn means that we need to process more volumes of data. So being able to scale and keep up with computing needs is key.”

In addition, ALMA makes archives available to researchers. “The archive is important not only because we can do data processing and extract information from it but because it is for the next generations,” says Jose Parra, ALMA’s archive pipe and operations manager. “The data will stay for anybody who wants to take a look and do their own research.” As a result, ALMA’s storage needs are immense and growing annually by about 400 terabytes. The observatory relies on technology solutions that allow for large amounts of easily scalable data storage.

Reliability of the computing resources is also an important criterion. With observations running 24 hours a day at least 11 months of the year, ALMA can’t afford downtime. “There are some astronomical events that will never occur in the near future. Some of them will take 100 years to repeat, so availability and reliability of the systems are key,” Parra says. Because ALMA’s resources need to be consistently available, the observatory is also working on a centralized data science platform to provide insights mostly related to failure prediction and preventative maintenance of equipment.

A rewarding human-machine partnership

Mentally stimulating and spellbinding discoveries are what ignites ALMA’s mission every day. These breakthroughs happen at the intersection of people and technology- the human-machine partnership. According to the Dell Technologies Breakthrough study, just 37% of the more than 10,000 global workers surveyed said their jobs consist of mentally stimulating tasks. Less than half say they have a clear purpose or opportunity to make a positive impact in their role.

In contrast, Cristobal Achermann, ALMA’s IT project manager says that working at ALMA has been a rich and rewarding experience. “The most fulfilling aspect of my work is the people and our mission. It always amazes me to think that people from different cultures and countries are willing to put differences aside and come to Chile to pursue our common great goal, which is to unveil the mysteries of the universe,” Achermann says. Ibsen remembers being blow away by the image surrounding a black hole “This is something that took several years to just put the instrument together, so being at ALMA to witness the whole setup and the construction of this new discovery was amazing,” he says.

Another success in ALMA’s books: The observatory has discovered a galaxy with spiral morphology—the oldest ever recorded. Tracing the roots of the spiral structure will provide clues to the environment in which the solar system was born and potentially advance scientists’ understanding of the formation history of galaxies.

ALMA will be celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2023. “One of the interesting challenges here is to always be at the forefront of innovation,” Ibsen says, “if there is an emerging technology, we need to test it and to see how that will fit in our setup so we can keep expanding the capabilities of the observatory.”

Parra expects the observatory to evolve and advance along with the availability of new technologies. ALMA’s Development Program: Roadmap to 2030 calls for doubling angular resolution, sensitivity and bandwidth. “Having Dell Technologies as a partner will let us explore these new possibilities and improve our process even more,” Parra says. And with these new and improved processes will come new frontiers in space exploration for generations of astronomers to delight over.

Lead photo credit:  ESO/NAOJ/NRAO