UW Information Technology

March 19, 2019

Piecing together the cosmic dawn

Cloud computing credits support UW student in deciphering the early evolution of the universe

Radio astronomy requires sophisticated equipment that can withstand harsh weather. UW student Ruby Byrne inspects an antenna that has taken a beating in the Australian desert.

By Ignacio Lobos

Radio astronomy Ph.D. candidate Ruby Byrne agrees that “Epoch of Reionization (EoR)” is a mouthful of jargon. But it simply refers to an exciting time in the universe’s history when stars and galaxies first turned on and lit up the heavens.

The EoR also goes by the name of “cosmic dawn,” said Byrne. And understanding this cosmic dawn — which happened a few hundred million years after the Big Bang — would give us deeper insight into dark matter, star and galaxy formation, and dark energy in the early universe, as well as dating the EoR more accurately.

“We are studying the EoR by trying to image neutral hydrogen gas,” said Byrne, who works with Professor Miguel Morales in the Department of Physics “We haven’t found our signal yet, but we’re working on it.”

To do this, Byrne is seeking to optimize a telescope half-a-world away, set up in the in the Australian outback. Byrne and her team are trying to increase the sensitivity of the telescope so it can detect faint radiation that has taken billions of years to reach Earth, said Rob Fatland, UW-IT’s Director of Cloud & Data Solutions.

They’re using commercial cloud computing credits offered through the UW’s Research Computing Club to support their work.

“My role is developing novel data analysis methods that maximize the precision of our instrument, “Byrne said “We have absolutely enormous data volumes and computationally expensive analysis methods, so the computing credits for cloud computing have been a big time and money saver for us.”

The Research Computing Club is a tremendous resource for students who need compute power, Fatland said, whether that means powering their research with the onsite UW Hyak supercomputer or cloud computing horsepower.

Computing credits for club members are available through UW-IT from Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google. UW-IT Research Computing & Strategy staff often also mentor club members with their research. In addition, Student Technology Fee funding allows club members to use the onsite UW Hyak supercomputer for their work.

“UW research is increasingly in need of new technologies, methods and tools for doing data science,” Fatland said. “Students are the catalyst for bringing these resources into common practice. So, an opportunity like this to build and learn using research computing is a win for the students and a win for UW.”