Dr. Joeri van Leeuwen,
Astron, Astronomy institute Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy
Twenty thousand Euros of research funding, plus free use of a lightning-fast connection between two supercomputers via a lightpath: a dream for many scientists, but a reality for ASTRON astronomers Joeri van Leeuwen and Jason Hessels. In 2010 they cashed in their ‘Enlighten Your Research’ prize from SURFnet.
Van Leeuwen works at ASTRON, the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy: “Our work includes research on neutron stars, which are born when normal stars explode. They are so compressed that their gravity is very strong. The research results enable us to improve our understanding of time and space, and they also slot in well with the principles of relativity theory. Ultimately we gain a better understanding of how gravity works, the way in which the universe is curved [see image] and what this may mean for the future. We are using the research funds and the Enlighten Your Research lightpath to try to find out how many neutron stars there are in the universe.”
ASTRON has one of the most sensitive radio telescopes on earth. This and other radio telescopes in the Netherlands and America produce large amounts of data every night. Van Leeuwen: “We need to sift through all that data to detect the presence of neutron stars. This requires a lot of computing power, which is why in addition to our own supercomputer we also use the national Huygens supercomputer through SURFsara, and another supercomputer in America. We use dynamic lightpaths to distribute the data across various supercomputers.” In addition to being transmitted and processed, data must also be interpreted. This requires researchers, who Van Leeuwen is paying for with the prize money.
“Using the data from this project we discovered that within ten years – an incredibly short period of time in astronomy – a neutron star was born from what was originally a normal star.” Van Leeuwen expects more discoveries to follow: “From the Huygens supercomputer data alone we expect to discover 10-20 new neutron stars. It will also turn out that a number of them have already existed for a long time, but that we never saw them before.”
Van Leeuwen is positive about the partnership with SURFsara: “They have made a genuine contribution. First of all, they proposed the most efficient configuration of dynamic lightpaths, and they also transferred excess data from our own supercomputer to their own storage systems. And because we had never worked with Huygens before, we also had to modify our software. SURFsara helped us a lot with that too.”
Extreme stars bending space-time: the data points (bottom) show that light slows down when it skims close to a large neutron star (artist impressions, center).