This research highlight was originally published in NCI's 2021-2022 Annual Report.

Researchers from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, are using NCI’s Nirin cloud computer to enhance the operation of the ASKAP radio telescope and help protect valuable national science infrastructure.

Located on Wajarri Yamatji Country at the CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, ASKAP is one of the best instruments in the world for mapping the sky at radio wavelengths. With its wide field of view and powerful survey capability, the telescope is enabling research into some of the big questions in astronomy, such as the origin of mysterious bright pulses of radio waves known as fast radio bursts. Processing and analysis for the influx of data is done in real time at the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre in Perth.

The MRO is ideal for radio astronomy for many reasons, including that its remote location means there are extremely low levels of radio-frequency interference from human sources. There are, however, occasions mostly during the summer months, when atmospheric conditions lead to distant human-made radio signals being detected at the site, in a process known as tropospheric ducting.

Desert landscape at night, with four radio satellite dishes visible on the horizon and many stars in the sky.
CSIRO's ASKAP radio telescope on Wajarri Yamatji Country in Western Australia is designed to survey the sky faster, and in more detail, than ever before. Credit: CSIRO/A. Cherney

Dr Balthasar Indermuehle has been working to better understand and model these ducting events, so that they can be more accurately predicted and factored into ASKAP telescope operations. To do this, he requires high cadence data from the meteorological satellites observing Australia. “I was very glad NCI could offer this data in almost real-time and at no additional cost,” he says. “Furthermore, rather than having to copy the data to our servers, causing additional latency, I discovered I could use NCI’s cloud infrastructure to process the data at NCI itself. This has proved very convenient and greatly supported my research: I can install the operating systems and development and processing frameworks I’m familiar with, and save a lot of time in the process.”

Significantly, the NCI Cloud also enables CSIRO to better protect the major research infrastructure located at the MRO. As the site is operated remotely, accurate information on the local weather situation is critical to inform decisions around how assets are managed. However, the absence of local weather observers or radar stations covering the area means that reliable now-casts are not available. Instead, the ASKAP team is now accessing near real-time satellite data products it creates on the NCI cloud. In combination with a range of other measures, this is enabling a very effective response to severe weather systems, such as automatic stowing of telescopes when thunderstorms develop or when frontal systems sweep across the lands.

Support for ASKAP demonstrates the enormous value created by strong and effective partnerships between Australia’s leading research and supercomputing facilities. CSIRO researchers are drawing on Australia’s 2 Tier-1 HPC facilities in diverse and flexible ways to enable ground-breaking science with ASKAP, from using the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre’s capabilities to store and analyse the vast astronomical data collected, to drawing on NCI’s cloud infrastructure and data collections to optimise facility processes and enhance the protection of assets. Together, Australia’s HPC facilities are supporting a strong and innovative Australian research community.