First point-to-point research network circuit between Europe and Africa enables astronomers to create a more detailed view of the universe

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Radio astronomers in Africa and across the globe will benefit from faster collaboration through a dedicated, high speed 15,000 km network link between the pan-European GÉANT and African UbuntuNet Alliance education networks announced last week.

The 2Gbps point-to-point circuit will enable astronomers at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in South Africa to stream observational data to the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE) in the Netherlands for processing and correlation, and is the first point-to-point circuit between GÉANT and UbuntuNet. 

HartRAO, located in a valley in the Magaliesberg hills, 50 km west of Johannesburg, is the only major radio astronomy observatory in Africa. Through the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), it collaborates with radio telescopes on other continents to form a virtual telescope the size of the Earth.

Combining observations from multiple telescopes using VLBI allows more detailed observations of distant astronomical objects than with any other technique. Information is sent in real-time from radio telescopes around the world to JIVE, where these enormous volumes of simultaneous observation data are correlated to form high resolution images of cosmic radio sources.

The establishment of the point-to-point circuit is part of the European VLBI Network’s (EVN) e-EVN development programme for electronic VLBI (e-VLBI). This uses high speed research networks to transfer data for processing in real-time is an alternative to the traditional VLBI method of recording and shipping data on disk. e-VLBI enables observations of transient phenomena such as supernovae, using the highest resolution astronomical technique possible.

“This is collaborative research and education networking at its best,” said Dr F F (Tusu) Tusubira, CEO of the UbuntuNet Alliance. “Providing a point-to-point link between Hartebeesthoek and JIVE in the Netherlands benefits the entire global radio astronomy community, as it enables faster, more detailed observations to be shared in real-time and consequently dramatically increases our knowledge of the universe.”

The point-to-point circuit will seamlessly add the 26m telescope at Hartebeesthoek into the e-EVN array at the highest possible data rate. It will be used for a series of 10 observing sessions annually to observe targets that would benefit from the rapid turnaround that analysing the data in real time provides. The fast turnaround of results through the e-EVN enables decisions on further observations to be made whilst the astronomical event is still in progress, thereby enabling the study of more rapid transients, such as supernovae.

“This new link between Africa and Europe is the perfect example of close co-operation between research networks across the globe, working together to provide astronomers and scientists with the infrastructure they need to advance their work,” said CathrinStöver, Chief International Relations Officer, DANTE, the organisation which on behalf of Europe’s National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) has built and operates the GÉANT network. “As the first point-to-point link between Europe and Africa, it shows the truly global nature of research and should encourage even greater collaboration between the two continents moving forward.”

For the global radio astronomy community, adding HartRAO into the e-EVN array will improve the North/South resolving power, thereby allowing more detailed source structure to be seen, especially in the southern sky.

Research data gathered at HartRAO, a member institution of the South African national research and education network (NREN), TENET, flows in succession across the networks of TENET, UbuntuNet, GÉANT and Dutch NREN SURFnet.