There are still discoveries waiting to be made from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Its famous 300-meter radio dish–the world’s largest for decades–sustained damage in 2020, and the telescope shut down. But thanks to an international community of scientists and researchers, including a School of Informatics and Computing faculty member, Arecibo’s thousands of hours of viewing data will be available for researchers to make new discoveries for many years to come.
Through her collaboration with a far-flung team of researchers, Angela Murillo, assistant professor of library, information and data science, is helping to archive a treasure trove of astronomical data from the Arecibo radio telescope dating back to the 1960s.
Through two projects funded by the National Science Foundation, Murillo and her colleagues have been working to preserve and exchange scientific data, and promote the exchange of cyberinfrastructure knowledge from Arecibo and other major NSF facilities.
Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California were among those participating as part of the $3 million CI CoE Pilot grant.
These projects provide expertise and active support to cyberinfrastructure practitioners, and have developed a data life cycle model for major NSF facilities. That’s important in the case of Arecibo, where researchers have amassed thousands of hours of observing sessions using its famous telescope, featuring a reflector dish built into a natural sinkhole.
On the move
Moving and securing such a massive amount of valuable scientific data is a challenge, especially on an island with limited bandwidth.
“I’ve been involved with the CI CoE Pilot since November 2019,” Murillo explains. “During 2020, I helped conduct interviews with NSF major facilities to gain a deeper understanding of various aspects of their data life cycle.
“We have also been involved in ‘deep engagements,’ where we spend a more concentrated time with a major facility and provide specific guidance on certain cyberinfrastructure aspects.”
Murillo’s work spotlights the key role of data management in scientific discovery, and how graduates from SoIC’s Library and Information Science, Informatics, and Applied Data Science programs can use their skills to make a real-world difference in astronomy, cyberinfrastructure, and other disciplines.
The skills sets she’s drawing from for the Arecibo project drive the field of data science, in specialties including data curation and analysis. SoIC graduates use these same data archiving skills throughout their careers, to develop databases with a user-centered focus that balance accessibility with security, data life cycle, and ethical concerns.
A team effort
Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory has played a vital role in astrophysics and radio astronomy. Highlights include:
- Detection of first binary pulsar in 1974.
- Arecibo was key to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In the 1970s it beamed the first deliberate message intended to be decipherable by extraterrestrial beings.
- The Arecibo radio telescope appeared in the James Bond film “Goldeneye,” and in the 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact.”
Murillo is working with various partners to move the Arecibo radio telescope data to the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This transfer will help to expand access to over 50 years of astronomy data from the Arecibo Observatory.
Due to its scope, this is not a quick assignment. “Our involvement with Arecibo has been one of these more longer-term engagement,” Murillo says. “We began working on various cyberinfrastructure aspects; however, my focus has been on data archiving and long-term preservation, as well as dissemination of the data.”
“There are many people involved from the CI CoE Pilot, all of whom bring vital expertise to the project,” Murillo says.
“And there are multiple partner organizations, including TACC, UCF (University of Central Florida), EPOC (Engagement and Performance Operations Center), Globus, and others. All are helping to ensure that this important data is managed and made accessible for astronomers and scientists to continue Arecibo’s legacy.
“Knowing that I am helping in just a small way to preserve this data for future scientists is very important to me,” Murillo says. “I am very proud of being involved with a project that brings to so many people together and shows how projects can come together and collaborate for the greater scientific good.”
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1842042 and 2127548.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.