Aussie link-up eyes off supermassive black holes

Summary:A first-time collaboration between Australian, Chinese and Japanese scientists has allowed new high-resolution images of black holes to be produced by linking together radio telescopes.

A first-time collaboration between Australian, Chinese and Japanese scientists has allowed new high-resolution images of black holes to be produced by linking together radio telescopes.

The collaboration involved a 25-metre radio telescope of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, the 34-metre telescope of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Kashima, Japan, and the 64-metre CSIRO radio telescope near Parkes in NSW, and a dedicated fibre optic link supplied by Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) and its international partners.

Normally, such data is shipped using tapes or other media, taking weeks or months to process. However, the 512Mbps fibre link allowed the images to be processed and viewed in real time, with the data collected from the experiment sent back via the link to a supercomputer in Parkes, NSW owned by Swinburne University.

"This is the first time Australia has collaborated directly with research institutions in Asia," said Chris Hancock, CEO of AARNet. In order to complete the link-up, the data travelled across five different networks: Japan's JGM2, China's CSTNet to the Pacific Northwest, Gigapop in Seattle, CENIC in California and finally AARNet's SXTRansPORT to Australia.

The international link-up used in the VLBI demonstration.

Credit: Paul Boven, JIVE Satellite image: Blue Marble Next Generation, courtesy of NASA Visibible Earth

Hancock said this kind of research collaboration "would not be possible over commercial networks". The network involved Layer 2 light paths, according to Hancock, meaning no other internet traffic travelled over the same equipment or routers. Hancock said such bandwidth would be valued in the "millions" of dollars.

According to the CSIRO, the observations focused on "active galactic nuclei" — super-massive black holes at the heart of distant galaxies. Dr Chris Phillips, from the CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) said the experiment demonstrated two things.

"First, we've shown Australia can be the data-processing centre for these international experiments ... second, we've proved that the Australian, Chinese and Japanese systems, which grew up independently, are compatible," said in a statement.

"We're now in the age of astronomy without borders," added Dr Tasso Tzioumis, also of CSIRO's ATNF. "From a single operations centre we can make huge streams of precisely time-linked data flow simultaneously between several countries."

The images were produced using a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), a type of radio astronomy. In radio astronomy, larger dishes produce higher resolution images.

However, as it becomes impractical to build increasingly larger dishes, scientists combine the data from several smaller dishes to create a single virtual larger dish, in a technique called "aperture synthesis". When using this technique the distance between the dishes, called the "baseline" determines the resolution, thus the name VLBI.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Networking

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