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Research Platform Developed by CANFAR Helps Researchers Discover Pluto’s Neighbours

Kuiper Belt

Through its Research Software Program, CANARIE funds the development of software tools, called Research Software Platforms, to help Canadian scientists and researchers do their work. As science is a collaborative, international endeavour, these platforms have made a global impact. As part of this program, the researchers at CANFAR, the Canadian Advanced Network for Astronomical Research, have developed a Big Data Analytics Platform.

Big Data Analytics has recently played a vital role in mission planning for the New Horizons space probe. This probe, launched by NASA in early 2006, is headed towards the Kuiper Belt, where it will be studying the dwarf planet Pluto as well as other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs). A flyby of Pluto is scheduled for July 2015.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system that extends out past the orbit of Neptune, the most distant planet from the sun. This disc-shaped belt is populated mostly by small, icy bodies left over from the formation of the solar system and is not yet well understood, as it was only discovered in 1992. Pluto was an obvious target of the New Horizons probe as it is the largest known Kuiper Belt object and has been known for some time, having been initially discovered in 1930. So little is known about the Kuiper belt that a search had to be undertaken to locate other KBOs for New Horizons to explore.

The Kuiper Belt is between 4.5 and 7.5 billion kilometers from Earth and New Horizons has a limited fuel supply, so upfront mission planning is critical. Remote control is not an option as radio signals take more than 4 hours to reach the nearest edge of the Kuiper Belt from Earth. This is where the Big Data Analytics Platform comes in: Scanning imaging data from ground-based telescopes, the Big Data Analytics Platform was used to create a high precision reference catalogue of Kuiper Belt objects and to distribute this catalogue to researchers around the world.

Constructing the catalogue required 10 core years of computing, roughly equivalent to a modern laptop running continuously for 5 years. As the catalogue was needed a short time after the telescopic observations, it was actually created in a single week using 500 compute cores running in parallel. This is roughly equivalent to 250 laptops.

In 2014, after years of effort, this catalogue allowed researchers to find a KBO with a diameter of approximately 30 km within reach of New Horizons. This KBO, known as PT1 until it can be assigned a proper name, may be visited by the probe in January 2019, subject to successful completion of the Pluto encounter.

(Article adapted from CANARIE Research Software Blog post by Scott Henwood, Director, Research Software Program)