(Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation/Arecibo Observatory)

UCF to Enhance Arecibo Observatory’s Computing Power Using Microsoft Azure

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico soon will get a major computing power upgrade as the University of Central Florida expands its relationship with Microsoft.

UCF manages the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory, home to one of the most powerful and sensitive radio telescopes in the world with a unique planetary radar system. The observatory has contributed to decades of scientific discovery including the first binary pulsar, the first exoplanet and more recently playing a key role in NASA’s Planetary Defense program. The facility is part of UCF’s growing portfolio of space-related research projects aimed at expanding our understanding of the universe and is used by more than 250 scientists every year.

“Our work with Microsoft will have an incredible impact on our understanding of the solar system through Arecibo.” – UCF Interim President Thad Seymour, Jr.

UCF is expanding its agreement made in September 2018 with Microsoft. Specifically, UCF will use a variety of Azure services –– from analytics to AI –– to develop a new platform that will help facilitate access and storage of the 12 petabytes of data the observatory has collected in its 50-year history. Once fully implemented, the new platform is expected to make robust information about planets, pulsars, asteroids, and comets more easily accessible to scientists working at Arecibo and around the world. Long-term trends of ionospheric data will also contribute to a better understanding of our atmosphere, and have the potential to significantly improve communications between space assets and ground stations across the globe.

This amount of data includes information from hundreds of observing sessions when the observatory’s massive dish tunes in to the solar system and beyond and is so extensive that it would take about 175 years to see if it was in HD video format.

“Our work with Microsoft will have an incredible impact on our understanding of the solar system through Arecibo,” says UCF Interim President Thad Seymour Jr. “Not only will scientists benefit from accelerated access to data, but the ability to analyze the data with innovative tools will provide a unique educational opportunity for students who work at the observatory. The information that may be hidden in this data could mean major discoveries that advance our space exploration mission. This is the power of research and collaboration.”

The extension comes as a result of discussions between Microsoft officials and UCF, which began in 2018 when representatives from Microsoft visited UCF and met with a variety of leaders representing multiple areas of the university, including Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies. She shared the opportunity the observatory presented to the computing giant – to help advance science and help train the next generation of students working on data analytics at the facility.

“The ability to safely store, access and manipulate data is one of the most powerful tools educational institutions like UCF have today. We’re excited to empower UCF to not only optimize their operations and research teams but to advance science through their student training initiatives,” says Jamie Harper, vice president of Microsoft US Education.

Arecibo software engineers are already working with Microsoft experts to begin the process of properly cataloging the data sets. It’s going to take a while because of the amount of data already collected. While the team works to catalog the 12 petabytes, they will be working on plans to process and store the estimated one petabyte of data collected each year. One petabyte is equivalent to 745 million floppy disks or nearly 10 billion photos uploaded to Facebook, according to various computing experts.

“We’ve been looking at ways to improve how we manage our data,” says Francisco Cordova, director of the observatory in Puerto Rico. “Microsoft Azure will not only facilitate access to the data but will also provide powerful processing tools that increase our operational efficiency. We can also apply new artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to old data sets, which potentially contain significant discoveries previously overlooked by lack of processing power.”

NSF also expects enhanced science from the new collaboration.

“We are thrilled to see this effort materialize to make Arecibo data easier to access,” says NSF program officer B. Ashley Zauderer. “A valuable aspect to scientific research is analyzing archival data with a new hypothesis, looking at observations taken a decade ago or more in a new way.  This effort will lead to exciting new discoveries and insights.”

Long-term trends of ionospheric data will also contribute to a better understanding of our atmosphere, and have the potential to significantly improve communications between space assets and ground stations across the globe.

The observatory is operated by UCF in partnership with Universidad Ana. G. Mendez and Yang Enterprises Inc. under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The planetary radar program is supported by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program.

UCF has been ranked one of the top 50 public research universities in the nation and has a growing reputation for expertise in space research. Its scientists and faculty, including those at Arecibo, are involved in multiple NASA missions and work with commercial companies in expanding our capabilities to explore the universe. UCF is also ranked first for placing graduates in aerospace industry jobs; its science engineers work at JPL, NASA Goddard, Kennedy Space Center, and multiple private space companies.

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