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Attracting and retaining human stars

Spotlight On:

Severin Gaudet
Canadian Astronomy Data Centre

Astronomy is one of Canada’s strongest sciences and that’s one of the reasons Severin Gaudet is happy to be working in the field.

Gaudet is a computer guy — a software project manager, to be exact — but he works in the National Research Council’s Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC), part of the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre, which has been in operation since the 1980s, when Gaudet joined. He’s been archiving astronomy data ever since.

If Canada wants to train and retain its intellectual capacity, Gaudet says, we need good projects and world-class facilities to put Canada at the forefront of science. That's where Compute Canada and other digital research infrastructure partners can help.

“Astronomy is one of Canada’s strongest sciences. That’s because we’ve had access to world-class facilities in the optical and radio fields in the past,” he says. “The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Gemini telescopes, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the James Clark Maxwell Telescope — Canadians have had access to these telescopes because Canada invested in these big facilities. To attract and retain our human stars, we need to give Canadian access to world-class facilities.”

In his early days with CADC, Gaudet worked with Hubble data and then with the Canada-France Hawaii telescope data. Today, he’s busy with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a mammoth international radio telescope project that will offer four times the resolution of the best radio telescopes currently available, and five times the sensitivity.

The SKA project is being jointly undertaken by almost two dozen countries, representing 40 per cent of the global population, some of which will host regional centres for data processing. Gaudet and his colleagues hope Canada, which has been very involved in designing the telescope’s initial infrastructure, will host one of those centres, giving its researchers access to all of SKA’s data for processing and analysis. Construction on the actual telescope and data centres is expected to begin in 2020.

Gaudet is Canada’s representative on SKA’s regional centre co-ordination group, where he’s in charge of working on the data, and he describes the technical capabilities of SKA as “very much of a leap.”

“Canada is already involved in a major way,” he says, adding that Canada has worked on the leading central signal processor consortium, timing processors, low-noise amplifiers, radio-frequency digitizers and sub-reflectors for the MeerKAT telescope dishes.

Gaudet also works on the Canadian Advanced Network for Astronomy Research (CANFAR), a science platform for astronomy for the university researchers who exploit the data. CANFAR began as a project funded through CANARIE, Canada's national research and education network, but these days CANFAR is developed and maintained by NRC.

“It’s a processing and collaboration environment,” Gaudet says. “The archive is where the data sits for long-term curation so users can extract and process it. The data centre keeps a copy of the data archives on Compute Canada’s storage so it can be closer to the users.”

The Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre is located in two sites: Victoria and Penticton — the latter is where the CHIME telescope is located. CHIME is a CFI-funded telescope that has been recently designated as a SKA Pathfinder facility. SKA pathfinders are facilities involved in SKA-related science and technology studies, and provide vital input for the teams developing the SKA.

As a software project manager, Gaudet must figure out how Canada works with SKA data and his main focus is on scaling up the capacity of CANFAR and taking on new data projects.

“Right now, the basic data products from the Jansky Very Large Array Sky Survey being done in the US are coming to Canada and the Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy Data Analysis [CIRADA] project funded by CFI will create the software pipelines to process that data,” he says. “But the basic data products have to come in and be characterized and catalogued and the data products generated by CIRADA will have to be stored and made available.”

It’s a matter of creating an archive, he says, not so much for safe-keeping as for the ability for the community to access these data in a processing environment.

“The CIRADA project is helping the Canadian astronomy community think of developing pipelines for large data projects,” he says. “We’ll all working toward delivering the services that the astronomy community needs.”

As for Canada’s participation in SKA, he says the country has been a significant part of the preconstruction initiative.

“The final system review will be sometime later this year and that’ll include a full cost review and at that point, we’ll have a good idea of the cost of construction and operations," he says. "And we’ll have the cost of the global capacity required to store and process the data.”

The preconstruction role was mostly funded by the National Research Council with some industry participation.

“The challenge is to come with the right plan and the right cost for that plan,” he says. “The community has recognized that a regional centre is important for SKA. You need infrastructure to allow Canadian researchers to process their data, but also to allow Canadian researchers to develop new algorithms.”

Together, Compute Canada, CIRADA, CADC, CANFAR, and CANARIE are all working together to help Canadian researchers accomplish those goals.


Image caption: Artist’s impression of MeerKAT in the African Karoo region. Image provided by