Astronomy in the SKA era is data intensive, driven by supercomputers and requiring constant innovation. In China, Prof. Tao An of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory has been at the forefront of this work for years, collaborating within China and beyond to push the limits of data processing to meet the SKA’s challenging requirements.
A widely respected astronomer and co-chair of the SKA’s VLBI Science Working Group, Tao was part of an international team selected as finalists for the 2020 Gordon Bell Prize, which recognises outstanding achievement in supercomputing (some call it the Nobel Prize for supercomputing!). He told us more about the work that led to that nomination, what it takes to be a great scientist, and how clear, dark skies inspired his love of astronomy.
So let’s begin at the beginning, Tao – were you always keen on science as a child?
I was born in an ordinary small town in northern China. I did not have much access to science as a child, but I was not a stranger to astronomy. In my hometown, there was once a very famous astronomer named Guo Shoujing. He lived more than 700 years ago, and made important contributions to many fields of science, including astronomy. The largest optical telescope in China (the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fibre Spectroscopic Telescope, LAMOST) is named after him. There is a memorial to Guo Shoujing in my hometown which I visited many times as a child, but I had only a vague idea that he was a famous scientist.
Guo Shoujing was a 13th century Chinese astronomer, mathematician, engineer. Initially specialising in hydraulic engineering, overseeing many major water projects, he also developed new astronomical instrumentation to improve the accuracy of observations. This enabled the creation of a new, more accurate calendar which remained in use in China for more than 360 years.
What made you want to be an astronomer?
The sky overhead is mysterious and fascinating to every child. On summer nights, lying outside to cool off offers a great view of the twinkling stars in the night sky. It is sad that with the development of cities it is now impossible to see the night sky as I did in childhood. We often looked for constellations or bright stars corresponding to the illustrations in our textbooks. It is a great memory, and the first seed of astronomy was (probably) planted deep inside my heart then.
How did you become involved in the SKA?
I’ve been working in radio astronomy since my PhD in Astrophysics, and a logical path for me was joining the SKA. My first contact with the SKA was when I visited ASTRON in the Netherlands for one year as a visiting researcher, through the China Scholarship Council, in 2011; it is one of the birthplaces of the SKA concept and has very active scientists involved in the SKA. During this period, I visited the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT) and Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR), both SKA pathfinders, and learned much scientific and technical knowledge about the SKA. After the SKA site decision was made in 2012, the Chinese government started the preparation work for participation in the project and the construction of prototypes. That’s when I joined these efforts and became a member of the SKA family.
You’re now involved in many aspects of the project – tell us about those different roles.
Yes I play a variety of roles, sometimes as a scientist, sometimes as a project manager, and sometimes as a government representative. This is very tough, as each role has different goals and challenges. SKA is the largest international astronomical research project in which China is deeply involved, so I feel a great deal of responsibility.
Among those roles, I’ve been heavily involved in work on the SKA Regional Centres (SRCs) [the global network of computing facilities which will process, store and give astronomers access to SKA data]. I participate in the SRC Steering Committee as a Chinese representative, worked on the overall design of the global SRC network, and was responsible for the construction of the Chinese SRC prototype. We are proud that our team successfully built the world’s first SRC prototype with the help of the SKA Organisation and colleagues from partner institutes, and with great support from industry, particularly Huawei. I have fond memories of unveiling the prototype to the community at the 2019 SKA Engineering Meeting held in Shanghai in November. Seeing the prototype change day by day is like watching a child grow up; it’s an amazing and unforgettable feeling.
You’re also an astrophysicist of course! What’s your research focus?
I am mainly engaged in high-resolution observations of compact radio sources, especially observing the fine structure of astronomical objects such as active galactic nuclei, transient sources, and pulsars using the very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) technique. As co-chair of the SKA-VLBI Science Working Group, I coordinate a team of over 100 astronomers. VLBI is a highly collaborative international scientific programme that demands a high degree of cooperation from each individual researcher. This is similar to the future SKA science teams. I am delighted to work with excellent colleagues from the VLBI family. Engaging in research is what we are all about.
Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) uses telescopes separated by long distances – or baselines – to observe the same object at the same time. When the data is all combined, it’s like using one giant telescope with a diameter equivalent to the distance between the two most distant telescopes involved. VLBI was used to stunning effect by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration to capture the first image of a black hole, published in 2019.
What do you find so interesting about VLBI?
The ultimate goal of building and operating the SKA is to explore the mysteries of the Universe and to achieve major breakthroughs in natural science. In the era of multi-messenger, multi-wavelength astronomy, VLBI provides essential complementary information for the high-resolution study of transient sources, helping us to build a more complete picture. It’s an incredibly powerful technique. In the future, I see the SKA as the core of the global VLBI network; it will be able to probe deeper into space, significantly broadening our understanding of the Universe. SKA’s powerful capabilities will undoubtedly live up to expectations!
“Big data” is one of the most exciting aspects of the SKA. How did you get into the supercomputing side of astronomy?
Before I became involved with the SKA, to me big data seemed to be just an industrial hype gimmick. However, after engaging in SKA-related research, my opinion completely changed. The SKA pathfinders alone, although only a fraction of the scale of the SKA, are already producing petabyte-level data, challenging the current compute and storage capacities. In the future, the SKA will revolutionise the traditional way of doing research in radio astronomy; it will generate the largest amount of astronomical data ever recorded, which is a “gold mine” for human exploration of the Universe. That means there is an urgent need for supercomputers to support the analysis and storage of the SKA’s huge data flows.
You have been involved in testing SKA data processing on some of the fastest computers in the world – tell us about that.
That’s right, as part of some of the SKA’s Science Data Processor work packages my team and I tested how software workflows can be scaled up to meet the SKA’s data processing demands. This included carrying out testing in 2016 using Tianhe-2 in China, then the world’s fastest supercomputer, and more recently on SUMMIT, the current fastest supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.
After months of hard work, our (ICRAR/Australia, ORNL/USA, SHAO/China) collaborative team finally completed the full-scale SKA1 workflow test in 2019, and presented the results at the 2019 SKA Engineering Meeting in Shanghai. The experiment simulated SKA1-Low observations from the cosmic reionisation era, performed a calibration and imaging pipeline, and finally generated spectral line cubes. This generated 2.5 petabytes of simulated data (if you have a 500 gigabyte laptop, you would need 5,000 of them to store this data!), and the processing consumed 99% of SUMMIT’s compute resource in its peak operation. The data was written to disk, just like your laptop does, except in this case it needed a tremendous amount of disk space in SUMMIT, and happened at 926 gigabytes/s, 1.5 times the SKA1-Low design capacity! Writing data at such speeds is extremely complex, and required us to make major technical advances.
This is the largest workflow ever generated in astronomy and fully demonstrates the big data challenges of the SKA. This success demonstrates the SKA community has the right tool, sufficient resources and expertise to handle the large SKA data flow, and the innovative techniques we developed are applicable to other data-intensive areas of scientific computing too. As a result of our efforts, this work was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Gordon Bell Prize.
Did you know?
Multi-messenger astronomy uses electromagnetic radiation (different kinds of light) and other ‘messengers’ to study the Universe, including gravitational waves and cosmic rays.
Multi-wavelength astronomy combines observations made by different types of telescopes – radio, optical, infrared and so on – to reveal a more complete picture of an event or object.
What’s the best thing about being part of Team SKA?
Astronomy is a highly open discipline. The SKA is not only a telescope, but also an international collaborative research platform. Nothing is more wonderful than the sharing and propagation of knowledge under the same sky. SKA is also a huge project that spans the frontiers of science and technology in many fields such as astronomy, mechanical engineering, computers, communications, electronics and many others. That’s very exciting.
What is it like working with so many different nationalities as part of the SKA?
It’s certainly a pleasure to be a member of the SKA family. Participating in academic activities and engineering projects with colleagues from different academic backgrounds, countries, cultures, and ages, we not only exchange scientific results, but we also make many friends and share knowledge. This is a priceless asset and a very enriching experience! There are some challenges of course, like different time zones. Also, because English is not my first language, I have to adapt my hearing to many different accents!
Do you have time for hobbies outside the office?
When I was younger I enjoyed playing football, basketball and computer games, but now I am mostly busy with research or other business. On weekends or holidays I try to relax with my family watching movies or playing chess and cards with my son. Maybe after retirement I will have enough time to pick up some hobbies again!
What does it take to be a great scientist, in your opinion?
Scientific research is creative work and imagination is the source of innovative results. A good scientist must be able to think independently. New ideas, new methods, and scientific breakthroughs are often produced through questioning and debates. Winners in any field are not born, they are made. Excellent scientists must have undergone extensive and systematic professional training. There are no shortcuts in scientific research, so a strong interest and perseverance are required.
Lastly, you need good scientific partnerships. The division of knowledge and professional skills is becoming more and more refined, and no one can complete a large-scale scientific research experiment project alone. In a community composed of people with different knowledge backgrounds, everyone’s talents can be used, and everyone’s role is very important.
Also in this section