November 2011

Network enables exploding star search

One of the most dramatic astronomical events of the past quarter century illustrated ESnet’s speed, proficiency and value to scientific discovery.

In late August 2011, astronomers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California discovered what they’re calling “the supernova of a generation.” Located in a galaxy in the Big Dipper, the star was spotted just hours after its explosion became visible, thanks to a specialized survey telescope called the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) and ultra-high-speed data networks, including ESnet.

Although PTF scientists have found more than a thousand supernovae since the factory’s founding in 2008, this one, dubbed PTF 11kly, is a rare breed: a Type Ia supernova, the youngest ever detected and the kind astronomers use to measure expansion of the universe. Called “an instant cosmic classic” by Peter Nugent, the senior scientist at Berkeley Lab who first detected the supernova, PTF 11kly already is one of the most-studied supernovae in history, due in large part to ESnet and DOE’s National Energy Research Scientific Center (NERSC).

Data gathered from a robotic telescope at Palomar Observatory in Southern California were sent more than 400 miles to NERSC via ESnet and the National Science Foundation’s High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network. Machine learning algorithms on NERSC computers scanned through and characterized the salient data and, within hours, coordinates were zoomed to telescopes across the globe for follow-up observations. ESnet and NERSC enabled near real-time data processing of this rare event.

Since Labor Day weekend, the exploding star has been visible in dark skies through a good pair of binoculars. Viewing is even better through a small telescope. The last time a Type Ia supernova occurred this close – 21 million light years away at its discovery and getting brighter by the day – was in 1986, the same year that ESnet was born.