The recent exciting announcements from the teams from LIGO (with two interferometers in the states of Louisiana and Washington) and Virgo (with the Italian interferometer in Cascina connected to the Italian R&E network GARR) of the first observations of a “Kilonova” (the merging of two neutron stars generating both gravitational waves and a range of electromagnetic waves) on 17 August 2017 demonstrates the power and value of international collaborations.
We live in an era of big science. For the past two decades, collaborations involving hundreds of scientists have been commonplace and there are even some involving thousands. These big projects have achieved great things that wouldn’t have been possible without the ability of large groups to communicate and share data, from decoding the human genome to revealing the Higgs boson. Even by these standards, however, what happened on 17 August and the days that followed was special.
The LIGO and Virgo projects comprise more than 1,500 scientists, all of whom are working towards a single goal: to capture signs of gravitational waves and decode their meaning. The data gathering happens at massive observatories in the USA and Italy, but the analysis is done in countries all over the world. This distribution and analysis of Terabytes of data can only take place through the work done by GÉANT and dozens of NRENs building high performance research and education networks to allow huge volumes of data to be rapidly and securely shared around the world.
For the first time, gravitational waves, gamma-ray busts and light have been observed simultaneously from the same source. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) working in collaboration with scientists around the world, were able to pick up the infrared and optical signals from a gravitational wave and gamma source in the southern sky, within minutes of the announcement.
As a result, data from the ESO and their partner telescopes was passed back from Chile to the ESO science data archive at Garching in Germany. This data was transmitted through the R&E infrastructure of REUNA, RedCLARA, GÉANT and DFN. Not only have ESO been utilising the NREN networks to enhance the science that they do but they have also utilised the eduGAIN trust and identity infrastructure to interfederate their logins, thereby allowing researchers to collaborate seamlessly across institutions. ESO currently have a 1 Gbps connection to DFN and have been actively participating in eduGAIN to enable the federation of single-sign-on identities for researchers and staff.
Across the whole period, some 3,500 scientists and astronomers, many of whom have never worked together at such a scale, had to all of a sudden figure out how to access and share data. The growth of Authentication, Authorisation and Identification (AAI) technologies and the expansion of interfederation between organisations and identity federations using eduGAIN has allowed these rapid collaborations to take place by allowing researchers to use their existing institutional identities to access data on remote systems and securely share results.
What is a Kilonova?
The drama of a neutron-star merger is due to the fact that it involves one of the most extreme objects in the universe. Neutron stars are some of the smallest, densest stars we know. They do not have much more mass than our Sun, but all of it is compressed into a ball no bigger than the width of a mid-sized city (about 15 km, or 9 miles). That’s a lot of compression. A teaspoon of neutron star would weigh 10 billion kg (or 22 billion lbs)—about the same as 1 million very large elephants. The merging of two of these stars has sufficient energy to literally shake the entire universe.
The event didn’t just emit gravitational waves. It put out electromagnetic radiation in every spectrum: X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet, visible, and radio waves and this combination of gravitational waves and electromagnetic energy is what makes these events so exciting as it gives us multiple “views” of the same event.
Find out more
To find out more about the advanced networking and AAI technologies that helped make these collaborations possible visit:
For more information about the ground-breaking research visit:
Image: The Virgo collaboration/CCO 1.0