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Linux and open source technologies are used extensively in large-scale astronomy projects within Australia and throughout the world, and to a lesser extent in amateur astronomy. The Astronomy Miniconf at LCA2014 is focused on the use of Linux and open source technologies in astronomy. It will primarily focus on the technical aspects of large-scale professional astronomy projects, but will include sessions on topics of interest to amateur astronomers. Professional astronomers have been sourced from all of the major Australian radio astronomy projects (MWA, ASKAP, SKA) to give presentations on their work. To round out the programme, there will be a session on the 'citizen science' astronomy project theSkyNet, as well as sessions from amateur astronomers on more introductory topics. Most of the more technical sessions will be of interest to the full range of LCA2014 delegates, not just those with a particular interest in astronomy.

This miniconf is organised by Jessica Smith.


Miniconf Schedule

  • 10:40am - 10:50am Welcome, overview, call for lightning talks - Jessica Smith
  • 11:25am - 11:30am Changeover/questions
  • 12:20pm - 1:20pm Lunch (uncatered)
  • 1:50pm - 1:55pm Changeover/questions
  • 3:00pm - 3:40pm Afternoon tea (catered)
  • 4:20pm - 4:25pm Changeover/questions

Presentation abstracts and presenter bios

ICRAR projects, outreach and education

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) launched in 2009 and has fast become a top 10 radio astronomy research organisation. Along with a focus on high quality astronomy, engineering and high performance computing, ICRAR also emphasises outreach and education to inspire the next generation of researchers and spread the wonders of astronomy to the community. This talk will outline ICRAR's outreach and education activities that spread across all areas of ICRAR's research and almost all audiences you could imagine.

Kirsten Gottschalk

Kirsten wanted to be an astronomer from her earliest memory, but soon realised she much preferred talking about it than doing it. After some study in Astrophysics and Science Communication, she found her way to the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth. She now gets to meet astronauts, talk about the world's biggest telescope (the Square Kilometre Array), build telescopes in the desert and show off the gorgeous West Australian night sky to anyone that comes near. Part of her job is also babysitting theSkyNet and communicating with its 19,000 members. She makes sure theSkyNet doesn't get too unruly on its twitter account (@_theSkyNet) and has been involved in the project since its inception two years ago.

theSkyNet POGS: The PS1 Optical Galaxy Survey

TheSkyNet POGS is a research project that uses Internet-connected computers to do research in astronomy. We are combining the spectral coverage of GALEX, Pan-STARRS1, and WISE to generate a multi-wavelength UV-optical-NIR galaxy atlas for the nearby Universe. We calculate physical parameters such as: star formation rate, stellar mass of the galaxy, dust attenuation, and total dust mass of a galaxy; on a pixel-by-pixel basis using spectral energy distribution fitting techniques. This talk discusses the history of the project, where it is now and where it is going.

Kevin Vinsen

Kevin joined ICRAR in late 2009. At ICRAR he is a part of the Data Intensive Research Group which is addressing the issues caused by the huge data sets that modern radio and optical astronomy generates, and is working on the design of the Square Kilometre Array Science Data Pipeline. His main research area are: high speed data ingest, and developing methods for the automated classification of galaxies using multi-wavelength data and machine learning algorithms.

Kevin is currently working on two citizen science projects, as part of theSkyNet. The first is a system to calculate the spectral energy distributions from optical (PanSTARRS), infra-red (WISE, HERSCHEL) and ultraviolet (Galex) images. This will required between 8 and 16 million CPU hours to calculate and will require more than 50TBytes of storage to store the data. The second is to perform source finding in HI cubes.


Ensure that you have ignore_nice_load set to cool CPU so that your other apps will not be slowed down by nice load.

# echo 1 >/sys/devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/ondemand/ignore_nice_load

Then no excuse not to run it. See

Andrew Buckeridge

DistroAstro: Linux for Astronomers

Distro Astro is a project to create a Linux distribution optimised for professional and amateur astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. It incorporates software for telescope control, astrophotography, celestial mapping, rocket design, astronomical data analysis, and planetarium software - all wrapped up in an astronomy-themed Ubuntu-based distro. This presentation will provide an introduction to DistroAstro, a brief demonstration of some of the included software, and information about how people can get it and/or get involved.

Jessica Smith

Jessica is a systems and network administrator, with a strong interest in security, data privacy, and ICT policy & management issues. As an amateur astronomer, she combines her technical skills with a lifelong interest space and astronomy.

Monitor and Control in the MWA

The Murchison Widefield Array is a low frequency (80-300 MHz) radio telescope in the Murchison region of WA, at the future site of the Australian part of the Square Kilometre Array. It consists of 128 'tiles' scattered across the desert, each of which is a small radio telescope that can be pointed anywhere in the sky, entirely electronically with no moving parts. A small supercomputer joins the signals from each of the tiles to give a resolution as good as a single radio telescope more than 3km across.

Operating the MWA involves coordinating a host of services and computers. Each of the 128 tiles must be sent a bit-pattern to set the direction that it should point to. Groups of 8 tiles are combined in one of 16 'digital receivers', which has custom-designed cards to convert the signal from analog to digital, do some pre-processing and send the data out via fibre. Each digital receiver is managed by a single-board computer running Linux which controls the hardware via USB and I2C. The supercomputer to analyse the data is made up of 40 nodes running Linux, 24 of which have two high-end Nvidia GPU cards each. Other Linux servers handle data archiving, scheduling, and system monitoring.

This talk will cover the MWA architecture, and the software used to monitor and control the telescope. Most of the MWA software is written in Python, along with some Java, CUDA and C/C++.

Andrew Williams

Andrew has been working at the fuzzy interface between astronomy and computers for his entire career. At UWA, his honours and PhD work included building a CCD camera from components in 1991, as well as writing software for camera control, data capture and analysis, and telescope automation. After that, he spent 17 years at Perth Observatory doing research that also involved a lot of scientific programming, including working on software for the Murchison Widefield Array. He is now part of the MWA team at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy (CIRA), part of Curtin University.

Supercomputing and Data Storage Design for the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. It will comprise thousands of radio wave receptors (antennas) some of which will extend out to distances of 3,000 km from their central core region.

These will be split between three main frequency ranges, with each frequency range using a different telescope design. The three main frequency ranges, comprise of a low frequency array of dipole antenna, a mid frequency array of apeture synthesis antenna and a high frequency array of radio dishes.

Covering frequencies of 50MHz – 20 GHz, it will make a revolutionary break with today’s radio telescopes. It will:

  • Have a collecting area of almost one million square metres, giving it dozens of times greater sensitivity than any other radio telescope ever made.
  • Survey the sky thousands of times faster than other telescopes;
  • Integrate computing hardware and software on a massive scale, in a way that best captures the benefits of these exponentially developing technologies. (To give you an idea of scale, the SKA precursor telescopes on each candidate site (ASKAP and MeerKAT) are each about 2-3% of the full SKA)
  • Require computing power on a scale several times faster then tha fastest computers in existence as of 2013
  • Will produce as much data as the entire internet every day, all of which will be processed and analysed

Stephen Ord

Stephen is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University, working on the large-scale data collection and processing required by radio astronomy projects such as the Murchison Widefield Array and the Square Kilometre Array.

Desert Fireball Network - with Linux under the bonnet

The Australian "Desert Fireball Network" (DFN) is a facility based on the intersection of Astronomy and Geology, designed and operated in order to collect meteorites - samples of very old rocks from our solar system. During their flight through the upper atmosphere, meteorites can be observed as fireballs. DFN is a network of autonomous cameras, installed in the Australian outback, imaging the night sky continuously. Simultaneous observation of fireballs from two or more networked cameras enables us to triangulate the meteor trajectory and track the rock forward to where it lands, as well as back, to where it came from in the solar system.

The DFN history begins in 2003, when a first prototype of film-based desert fireball camera was installed, continues through 2005, when a small network of three cameras was build, extended in 2007 by the fourth film camera. In the beginning of the 2010s digital camera technology became mature and affordable enough to start thinking of fully digital fireball cameras. Completely new digital cameras were developed during the last two years and are now being built to extend the network. MKII cameras are now running in the Nullarbor desert and the plan is to have approximately 25 cameras built and deployed during year 2014 and eventually run 50+ cameras with a small team of 3‑4 people.

Linux was an important component of the fireball cameras design since the beginning. The film cameras MKI are controlled by a Pentium based industrial grade PC, running Redhat 7.3 (a favourite distro at the time of the design, around 2002). Although the mechanical/electrical components need to be serviced from time to time, the OS and the camera specific software is still going strong! The new digital cameras are based on Debian wheezy running on industrial single board computers, much more compact design then the earlier film cameras.

The network, though by far from being complete, it already produces terabytes of hi-res images. That brings another challenge: It is obvious that such a volume of data cannot be processed manually – the data collection and processing must be automated as much as possible. Therefore the network consist not only from the cameras, but also includes a server facility and multi-terabyte data storage, developed in cooperation with iVEC supercomputing facility.

This presentation will cover the history of the network, description of the Linux and computer networking technologies used, as well as the experience with running the fireball camera systems during the last 15 years.

Martin Cupák

Martin Cupák is a member of the Desert Fireball Network team at the department of Applied Geology, Curtin University. He completed a M.Sc. in Computer Science at the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1997, and started his career as an independent software developer in the area of embedded and Linux-based systems, particularly in the field of ground-based astronomical instruments and space projects.

In the area of space industry he developed flight software for the Solar Hard X-ray Spectrometer (HXRS) launched on board of the U.S. DoD satellite MTI, flight software for the Czech satellite Mimosa and its main payload instrument MAC03. Later he was a head of the software development team in several on-going space projects: the Mimosa satellite Ground Station Command and Control software (based on Linux OS), the flight software of the highly-sensitive accelerometer instrument on board of the three SWARM satellites (European Space Agency/ESA mission, recently launched and currently in operation), the flight software of the Solar Spectrometer/Telescope for Imaging X-rays (STIX) instrument (one of the payloads of the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission) and several ESA General Technology Support Programme (GSTP) research studies. For each of these projects (except of STIX), Martin also designed and/or developed the linux-based Ground Support Equipment (GSE) software for testing and qualification of the space-borne HW.

Since 1998, Martin has been involved in fireball networks, both the Central European Fireball Network and the Australian Desert Fireball Network (DFN). He developed the control software for the film-based cameras for both networks and participated in the network installation, operation and service field trips to the Nullarbor desert since 2003. Martin also has experience with data processing, both from the space missions and fireball networks. The Desert Fireball Network project transferred to Curtin in 2012, and Martin joined the team as a full-time member in January 2013.

Martin's current work is on the Desert Fireball Network; a project in the outback to observe incoming meteoroids with astronomical cameras, track them to the ground, and recover the meteorite. As a software engineer, Martin is involved in development of new digital camera systems, and data collection and processing. He also administers the computer network interconnecting the cameras and still participates in the operation of the existing film-based camera networks. Both the software embedded in the cameras and the server-based software, gluing the network together, are based on Linux.

Lightning talks

Lightning talks are an opportunity for LCA delegates to deliver brief (5-10 minute) presentations on anything astronomy- and Linux-related that they're working on. Examples include software or drivers that they've written or contributed to, a mini-tutorial or walkthrough of open source astronomy software, or even just showing off some of your own astrophotography.

PLEASE NOTE that even though lightning talks are quite informal, presenters must still conform to the LCA Code of Conduct.