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NSF funds supercomputer at SU for gravitational-wave research

Supercomputer part of LIGO Scientific Collaboration

Jan 18, 2011 | Article by: Judy Holmes

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Syracuse University $791,000 to build a new supercomputer that will enable scientists from around the world to explore the universe in ways not currently possible.  The computer cluster will be housed in SU’s new Green Data Center on South Campus. SU’s College of Arts and Sciences is contributing an additional $339,000 to the project.

The supercomputer will provide resources for scientists involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana; and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. The cluster will be one of three, LIGO Scientific Collaborations (LSC) Tier 2 computing centers worldwide dedicated to gravitational-wave astronomy.

LIGO Tier 2 centers are also located at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at the Albert Einstein Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany. Together, with the LIGO Laboratory’s Tier 1 center, these computers provide the computational power needed to search for gravitational waves from distant objects in the universe.

“LIGO is now undergoing a major upgrade and SU physicists are playing a leading role in the project,” says Duncan Brown, assistant professor of physics in The College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the supercomputer project. “The Advanced LIGO detectors will enable us see at least a thousand times more of the universe than the original detectors. The supercomputer project will provide vital technologies for analyzing the data.”

Joining Brown on the supercomputer project are co-principal investigators Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics; and Christopher Sedore, vice president for information technology/CIO. 

The supercomputer will be a 2,500 CPU-core cluster with 388 terabytes of storage connected via gigabit Ethernet. SUGAR, a smaller supercomputer Brown built several years ago, will be integrated into the new computer, providing an additional 320 CPU cores and 96 terabytes of storage. Brown anticipates the cluster will be completed by summer.

Funded by the NSF and operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), LIGO is a vital member of a global network of gravitational-wave observatories. LIGO consists of two installations (Hanford and Livingston), which operate in unison as a single observatory.  Gravitational waves are produced by violent events in the universe, such as colliding black holes and neutron stars.  Scientists believe gravitational waves will provide a rich source of information leading to new understandings of space, time, and matter. The SU gravitational-wave group also includes physics professors Stefan Ballmer and Peter Saulson.

Skwarnicki is a member of The College of Arts and Sciences’ experimental high-energy physics group, which is participating in the LHCb collaboration at CERN. The LHCb is one of four particle detectors located in the Large Hadron Collider ring. The LHCb project is dedicated to searching for new types of fundamental forces in nature, especially those that would help explain the disappearance of antimatter in the universe. The new supercomputer will help scientists both analyze the LHCb data and test technologies that will be developed as part of the project to upgrade the LHCb detector.

SU’s high-energy physics group members also include physics professors Marina Artuso, Steven Blusk, and Sheldon Stone. In 2009, the high-energy physics group received more than $3.5 million from the NSF through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for its research.

Sedore will manage hardware operations support for the supercomputer in the Green Data Center, which became fully operational in April 2010. A collaboration of SU, IBM, and New York State, the Green Data Center was named one of InfoWorld’s 2010 Green 15.  The Green 15 represent the most innovative information technology initiatives worldwide that embrace green technology and boost energy efficiency.  The 12,000-square-foot SU facility uses about 50 percent less energy than typical data centers by combining existing and new technologies, including an on-site electrical tri-generation system.

PHOTO CREDIT: Illustration of Spinning and Non-Spinning Black Holes (NASA)

As shown in the illustration, the gravity of a black hole shifts X-rays from iron atoms to lower energies, producing a strongly skewed X-ray signal. One consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity is that spinning black holes drag space with them as they spin, making it possible for particles to orbit nearer to the black hole.  (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)


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Judy Holmes