CyVerse Community Member and Astrophysicist Helps Lead Event Horizon Telescope Data Processing

Feb. 2, 2019

A CyVerse collaborator and astrophysicist helps lead data processing efforts for the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration aiming to capture the first image of a black hole by integrating eight telescopes to create a planet


A simulated image by the Chi-kwan Chan of University of Arizona shows the turbulent plasma in the extreme environment around a supermassive black hole. (Photo credit: University of Arizona.)

A CyVerse collaborator and astrophysicist helps lead data processing efforts for the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration aiming to capture the first image of a black hole by integrating eight telescopes to create a planet-sized virtual telescope capable of measuring the boundaries of black holes. The EHT revealed its first black hole image today at a press conferencehosted by the National Science Foundation.

Chi-kwan “CK” Chan, an Assistant Astronomer at the University of Arizona (UA) Steward Observatory and a Data Science Fellow at Data7, the UA's Data Science Institute, turned to CyVerse educational and cloud computing resources to accelerate astronomical data analysis. The techniques he learned enabled him to help lead data processing efforts for the EHT project.

As a computational astrophysicist trained by UA professors Dimitrios Psaltis and Feryal Ozel, Chan developed multiple supercomputer


codes from scratch to study turbulent plasma around black holes, and spearheaded the use of graphics processing units (GPUs) to accelerate modeling of black hole images on the UA’s El Gato supercomputer.

These early works predicted how black holes would appear through the EHT, which collected its data through radio waves, and helped the UA EHT team develop novel techniques to understand the telescope’s observations.

Then Chan learned about CyVerse’s development of cloud computing technologies to assist plant and life sciences. “I immediately saw the project’s potential to accelerate astronomical data analysis,” he said.

"New technologies such as cloud computing are essential to support international collaborations like the EHT," said Chan, noting that at one point during the collaborative effort, the research team made use of over twenty powerful virtual machines running in two Google data centers – one on the east coast and one on the west coast – to serve the computational needs of EHT team members across the globe.

Through attending multiple CyVerse webinars, Chan learned various cloud computing techniques and brought the skills to bear on his role leading data processing for the EHT project. Chan has gone on to architect and maintain the cloud computing infrastructure for the EHT, lead its Software and Data Compatibility Working Group, co-develop one of the main data processing pipelines, and become the primary contributor to the major EHT software packages.

In addition, the Theoretical Models and Simulations Working Group of the EHT project stores its simulation library in the CyVerse Data Store, a secure, cloud-based repository for large-scale data storage and sharing. Influenced by CyVerse’s education on best practices in data science, the working group has also begun to use the Open Science Grid to analyze its simulations.

"CyVerse can have such a large impact in astronomy,” Chan said. “We are in a very exciting era that computational knowledge is so transferable and impactful in so many fields."

Chan now brings data science training full circle by helping to train researchers in all disciplines in CyVerse tools and technologies and through his work with the UA Black Hole PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education) program, a jointly funded U.S. and international project to bring astronomical projects such as the EHT into the era of big data science.

“Creativity and ingenuity of researchers like Chi-kwan Chan enables CyVerse to deliver on its mission of transforming science through data-driven discovery,” said Nirav Merchant, CyVerse co-principal investigator and director of the UA Data Science Institute. “In this new era, it is vital that research organizations and individuals can share knowledge, processes, and data readily in order to bring our collective expertise to bear on the discoveries that can only be achieved by working together."

"We have learned a great deal from our collaborations with members of the astronomy and astrophysics communities. We are delighted that they were able to integrate dedicated resources into our extensible cyberinfrastructure, thus allowing their global community of users and educators to easily access and collaborate on large data sets, computation, and learning resources made available through Chan’s work with EHT and Black Hole PIRE.”

Read more about the UA team's role in the Event Horizon Telescope here.

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