Astronomy survey to revolutionise capability of understanding changing celestial phenomena

UK project processing massive data stream from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will take inventory of the Universe.

How it will work

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will carry out the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) by constantly surveying the southern sky over a period of 10 years. The Observatory consists of an 8-metre telescope, the largest digital camera ever constructed with 189 sensors totalling 3.2 gigapixels, a complex data processing system, and an online education platform.

The survey will produce an image every minute, and every object that is variable, transient or moving will be catalogued and a constant data stream of these alerts will be produced.

It will impact every area in astronomy and will revolutionise the capability of astronomers to scan the sky for distant cosmic explosions, hungry black holes, the nearest earth-hazardous asteroids and the search for distant bodies and dwarf planets in the outer solar system.

The role of the UK

This work is part of UK’s Lasair project which has been selected as an official LSST community alert broker and will receive the full Rubin alert stream. The University of Edinburgh and Queen’s University Belfast have been partnering, with funding from STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), to build a community broker that will provide a user friendly and scientifically powerful platform for world-wide users to exploit this information-rich data stream. 

They built Lasair (which is Gaelic for "flame" or "flash"), the working prototype, which demonstrates how scientists across the world can scientifically exploit this massive data stream. The Rubin Observatory can support only a fixed number of full data streams, given their size and daily rate, and issued a call for proposals from the world-wide community.

Prof Stephen Smartt from the Queen's University Belfast said:

"Our selection as a community broker is endorsement of the work we have been doing over the last 3 - 5 years, showing that the UK has the technical and computing expertise to allow the world to exploit the LSST data. Rubin will be an enormous leap forward in scientific capability - the sensitivity, precision of measurement, and spectral information is unprecedented. But science will come from being able to understand and extract information from this stream."

Dr Roy Williams from the School of Physics and Astronomy’s Institute for Astronomy, and one of the lead developers and architects of Lasair said:

"There is now a deluge of data as sensors of all kinds proliferate. Electric grids deliver logging information at dizzying rates and bridges have internet-connected stress monitors, everywhere in modern society more messages are being produced. The difficulty is discerning what is critical and urgent from the irrelevant and ordinary. We are taking the lead in building a system so UK astronomers can get precisely what they are looking for."

What’s next?

The UK team have demonstrated a successful prototype, running on a data stream from the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF). The ZTF is a much smaller telescope based in California that produces a stream of astronomical alerts in similar format to that which will come from LSST.

The LSST data stream will be a factor 30 larger than that from ZTF and the Lasair team are now developing their technology to cope with the richer data flow. Lasair matches the alerts against every astronomical object that has ever been catalogued in the sky, in a giant database, and classifies the alerts based on the what we know about that region of sky across the full electromagnetic spectrum.

The team are developing novel database and data streaming techniques over the next two years to be ready for science data from Rubin in early 2024. The full telescope commissioning in Chile is planned to begin in 2023 and the Lasair team are working to be ready to accept the data tsunami that will run for 10 years.