9 August 2021

Chilean astronomical project is selected to process data from the new Vera C. Rubin observatory


ALeRCE, a Chilean project in the field of astronomy and data science, will incorporate big data techniques that are capable of optimizing the observation of the Universe. The role of ALeRCE will be fundamental for processing data collected by the new observatory, which is to be launched in the Region of Coquimbo in 2024.

For the first time in the history of astronomy, it will be possible to study enormous amounts of supernova explosions, supermassive black holes, variable stars, asteroids in our Solar System, and possibly objects that we can´t even imagine yet, in real time. This will be possible thanks to the advancements brought by the Vera C. Rubin observatory, starting in the year 2024, at the onset of its operations in Coquimbo. Members of the new observatory recently announced that ALeRCE (Automatic Learning for the Rapid Classification of Events) has been selected as its exclusive Chilean broker for official classification and early alert of data registered by the observatory.

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory will be revolutionary for our comprehension of the Universe, since it combines astronomy and big data techniques. With the world´s largest digital camera, of 3000 million pixels, the astronomical center will produce an image of the visible sky every three days.

But how will ALeRCE perform to receive the avalanche of data that will be arriving every night from the Universe? The huge volume of alerts will need new digital infrastructure that has never been seen before, including data centers and optic fiber systems set up exclusively for this project in Chile and the U.S.A. Also, this new observatory requires multi-streaming capacity to detect the most interesting events in real time, with the use of big data and artificial intelligence.

With this in mind, since the year 2017, a team of researchers from the Center of Mathematic Modeling of Universidad de Chile (CMM) and the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics (MAS) have been working on a broker to address the challenge of setting up the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. Thanks to the choice made by CMM and MAS, since the year 2020, the ALeRCE project from Data Observatory (DO) has invested significantly in building a team of engineering and astronomy experts, who have succeeded in processing the streams of alerts from the Zwicky Transient Facility -a telescope that is located in the U.S.A. and came before the Vera C. Rubin- in alliance with other national and international institutions.

This has made it possible to classify tens of millions of events in real time. Up until now, ALeRCE technology has been able to detect over ten thousand supernova explosions, and this information has been very useful for the research of professionals located in more than 66 countries. Chile, represented by ALeRCE, is one of the seven chosen teams for processing Vera C. Rubin data, and the other six are from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Francisco Förster, Associate Researcher at MAS and CMM, and an academic member of the Data and Artificial Intelligence Initiative from Universidad de Chile, added that this new form of conducting astronomy -more interdisciplinary and data-centric- “not only brings opportunities for making new scientific discoveries, but also for having an impact in other areas of science and society”.

On the other hand, Guillermo Cabrera, also a researcher with MAS, as well as an academic at Universidad de Concepción, and one of the founding members of the project, distinguishes that ALeRCE was the first broker to use artificial intelligence algorithms in real time. These algorithms learn to automatically detect and categorize new events as they appear in the Universe.

ALeRCE will build on earned accomplishments to scale up for the Vera C. Rubin, having developed a mature operational system and an important community of users. The novel machine learning techniques that have been implemented for the classification of images “will be able to track objects in real time, something that is crucial for drawing the best science out of the observatory. Furthermore, integrating cloud-based services provides the necessary scalability for conducting massive data processing on behalf of the community”, mentions Leanne Guy, leader of the scientific team for data processing and management at Vera C. Rubin.

Along with acknowledging this international recognition, ALeRCE is preparing to lead the astronomy of large volumes of data, and yield the most important discoveries that will be made over the next decade. Carlos Jerez, Executive Director of DO, and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Sciences at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, added that “this news certifies that the collaborative and interdisciplinary work we are carrying out in Chile is at the world-class level. It confirms the value that is generated through virtuous cooperation between academia, the State, and the private sector.

It is a tremendous announcement that ALeRCE has been selected as one of the brokers for the Vera C. Rubin observatory; it will be unique in the southern hemisphere. This is fruit of arduous labor that has been carried out over the past years, and brings forth a great task for us, with significant challenges, to obtain the immense amount of data this observatory will produce. For the participating universities, this will also result in valuable opportunities to develop human capital in areas such as computing, statistics, and astronomy,” added Susana Eyheramendy, an academic from the UAI Faculty of Engineering and Sciences, and a researcher in the project.

This Chilean initiative sets a precedent regarding the manner in which the Universe is studied, applying artificial intelligence to increase and improve the quality of the studies that may arise from space observation. Alejandro Maass, Director of CMM, valued that “the dream of young Chilean researchers, in their quest to attain the highest of virtues in the scientific edification of our astronomy, has finally arrived at a successful finale, one where we will take off on an unprecedented adventure as a country.” Likewise, the director of MAS, Andrés Jordán, complemented these words with “this is a very significant milestone for Chilean astronomy, and a well-earned recognition for the vision and work of a great interdisciplinary team”.

More information at http://alerce.science/



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