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High-bandwidth networks provide digital 'Silk Road' for astrophysics

Photograph of Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory in Tibet, the autonomous region of China.
High atop a mountain: A photo of the Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory in Tibet, the autonomous region of China, situated 4,300 meters above sea level. Image courtesy Helga Spitaler.

About once a day, the sky is lit-up by a brilliant flash of energy. This comes from gamma-ray bursts - violent and energetic eruptions of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, caused mainly by the explosion of massive stars in distant galaxies, billions of light-years away. Understanding these phenomena is data-intensive work and calls for a joint effort between scientists across the world.

Now, high-speed cross-continental research and education networks are helping European and Chinese scientists study one of the most puzzling phenomena known to science.

The GÉANT network provides high-capacity bandwidth connections for users in 40 countries and is linked up to the ORIENTplus network, directly connecting scientists in China and Europe. The Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe (DANTE), a data communications infrastructure, coordinates this partnership.

The collaboration provides resources for bandwidth-hungry research, enabling the transfer of terabytes of real-time data between China and Italy to study the global side effects of gamma-ray burst cosmic rays.

Cosmic shower side effects

First observed in the 1960s, scientists have been struggling to fully understand exotic gamma-ray bursts. This research is not solely about revealing the deep mysteries of the universe, because there are terrestrial benefits too. For instance, when gamma-ray particles, magnetic storms, or solar flares react with the atmosphere, they become cosmic showers, which may cause side effects such as playing a role in cloud formation and climate change, and could be responsible for radiation exposure on long-distance high-altitude flights.

Cosmic showers can also seriously damage sensitive electronics on-board the large number of satellites circling our planet which are responsible for important communication and monitoring. Two established research institutes are using sophisticated technologies to understand the details of this natural process.

Hardly cutting edge science

The Astrophysical Radiation with Ground-based Observatory at YangBaJing (ARGO - YBJ) project is a collaboration between the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Italy and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP), of the Chinese Academy of Science. The ORIENTplus network enables a direct link between YangBaJing observatory and the INFN-CNAF supercomputing center in Bologna, Italy.

The name ARGO is inspired from Greek mythology. Argus Panoptes (Argus the all-seeing) was a giant with a hundred eyes, always wakeful and alert. He is the inspiration for a device with thousands of eyes constantly scanning the sky for evidence of cosmic radiation.

The actual detector is located at the Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory in Tibet, the autonomous region of China. The observatory sits at a height of 4,300 meters above sea level. It consists of a single layer of Resistive Plate Counters covering an area of 6,700 square meters, providing a detailed space-time picture of comic showers in our atmosphere.

Boom! A video about Gamma-Ray Bursts made with animations and images from NASA & ESA. Image courtesy NASA.

"International collaboration between scientists is the only way to achieve a project like this and the combination of GÉANT and ORIENTplus makes that a reality for us. We maintain and operate the telescope facility - and all the processing takes place in near-real time thousands of miles away," says Cao Zhen, the Chinese spokesman for ARGO-YBJ.

The collaboration produces about 80 terabytes of data per year, made up of about one billion events. So far, they've published over ten research papers. Their latest paper is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Before 2006, data from the telescope was recorded on digital tapes and dispatched to processing centers by bus and plane.

"The only places in the world where we can site the telescope are remote and difficult to work in. So, we need to be able to transport terabytes of data every year from the telescope to the processing center in Italy for analysis and study. It used to be that the only way of doing this was to get our scientists to fly to Italy with suitcases full of data tapes - hardly cutting edge science," says Benedetto D'Ettorre Piazzoli, former vice president of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) and the Italian spokesman of the ARGO-YBJ collaboration.

Today, the GÉANT and ORIENTplus networks have taken over the role of the traveling scientist by reliably transferring large volumes of data in real time for analysis around the world at about 12.5 megabytes per second. The processing of this data is done by a Sino-European computing collaboration called the EUChinaGRID computing grid, which officially ended in 2008, but currently provides resources for Large Hadron Collider experiments.

"GÉANT and ORIENTplus are frankly a godsend. Without them, carrying out this research would be nothing more than a scientist's pipe-dream. We have recently upgraded the telescope and are now producing outgoing traffic that peaks over 100 megabits per second -- and it looks like we're going to be making even higher demands on GÉANT and ORIENTplus in the future," says D'Ettorre Piazzoli.

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