Holland Computing Center aids in latest major gravitational wave discovery

Nov 09, 2017      By Victoria Grdina

The Schorr Center, where the Holland Computing Center is located.
The Schorr Center, where the Holland Computing Center is located.

Another major scientific breakthrough has been made with the assistance and resources of the Holland Computing Center (HCC).

In August, a major astronomical milestone occurred: the observation of colliding neutron stars through both gravitational waves and the visual spectrum. This event, detected by the LIGO-Virgo Scientific Collaboration and a number of telescopes, heralded the beginning of the 'multi-messenger astronomy' era. LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, provided the first observation of gravitational waves a little more than two years ago, a finding that was confirmed and analyzed through the use of supercomputers and intense data analysis.

“This is like going from a silent movie to suddenly having sound and color,” said Nebraska research assistant professor Brian Bockelman. “There were a lot of astronomical questions wrapped up in this event.”

LIGO received assistance from the Open Science Grid (OSG), a global consortium of about 50 institutions that shares resources internationally and collaborates on scientific projects. One of those institutions is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and for both discoveries, HCC has served as the central research data hub.

Bockelman heads a software and technology area of OSG and monitored the data management and movement across HCC resources. For this project, that included moving 30 gigabits of data per second — or about 10,000 times the amount required for streaming a movie on Netflix. The reliability of the resources was essential for a project of such magnitude and something HCC has proved it could ensure.

“The fact that they used this by default was a real milestone, because that means that they trust it to do important work,” Bockelman said. “The whole end goal is that they don’t need to call me in the middle of the night to start doing their science.”

Following the initial discovery made in 2015 by two LIGO detectors, the project was joined by a third detector in Italy, Virgo, which allowed the source of the waves to be better triangulated. The opportunity to collaborate with partners overseas has provided HCC with many additional opportunities to expand its efforts.

“If you’re doing distributed computing and you’re only working with people locally, it’s hard to really see or understand some of the big challenges,” Bockelman said. “We really enjoy these international collaborations because they provide us with a different vantage point.”

HCC Director David Swanson agreed that added perspective will help HCC to expand into other research fields and projects at Nebraska and beyond.

“Science is a team sport,” Swanson said. “Where the exciting science is going to be primarily in the future is with these multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams. OSG has really trained us how to do that kind of research.”

But HCC doesn’t just supply computing power to other institutions in need. Those institutions are also helping HCC develop new technologies.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Bockelman said. “When this big event happened, we were the people they turned to and depended on to get things done, and, in turn, we’re depending on them to test the new ideas we’re working on.”

One of those new ideas is SciTokens, an authorization mechanism designed to make system access easier for multiple scientists without lowering security. Many of Bockelman’s other developments involve improvements that will make the use of shared OSG tools more accessible and dependable in the future.

“Where we come in is trying to continuously make the setup better, incorporate more resources, make them run more efficiently, make them more secure — and that’s a 12-month a year type of job,” Bockelman said. “And hopefully then it’s ready for that two-or-three-week burst, and you can stand back and watch everything go smoothly.”

Bockelman and Swanson both hope the university can continue to collaborate and expand its efforts in the future.

“I think the thing that’s exciting for Nebraska and Holland is that we’re involved with some international first-ever discoveries,” HCC Director David Swanson said. “If we didn’t have these kinds of collaborations and weren’t willing to share our resources in this way, we would join the rest of the world in reading about it in the newspapers.”

But for Bockelman, reading about his work in the newspapers is still very exciting.

“Having something you built get utilized for something so significant, and to see something you work on laying on the front page of the Washington Post…there’s some aspect of pride that our computing infrastructure helped out with that.”