Looking to the Stars

Dr. Jason Rowe searches for life on distant planets, using cloud-based computing

By Timothy Fowler

At 12 years old, Dr. Jason Rowe remembers seeing images of distant planets captured by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. He was enthralled by the details of planets we had never seen before. Now, Rowe spends his life in pursuit of an answer to the question: Could there be another planet like ours?

After completing his PhD at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Rowe joined the Kepler team as a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow, and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement medal for his work on measuring fundamental parameters of exoplanets; he then joined the SETI Institute as a research scientist, where he received his second NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement medal. He has authored and co-authored over 200 publications with over 16,000 total citations.

Now, Rowe is an assistant professor at Bishop’s University and the Canada Research Chair in Exoplanet Astrophysics. Using cloud-enabled computers to analyze data, he has discovered more than 800 planets, but most notably, Rowe discovered one the size of Earth that might hold water, and therefore could host biological growth. 

Searching for life

“Are there other earthlike planets out there that are able to foster life? I hope we find that there is some data for some distant atmosphere that is going to show water, oxygen and ozone – the things we call biomarkers – and not just in small amounts,” says Rowe. “If we see large amounts of something like ozone present in the atmosphere, there will be immediate conclusions drawn that this must be due to biology. There will be a counter argument that this will be due to some natural geological process but that’s OK, it’s just part of the scientific method.”

We are closer than ever to finding life on other planets in part because Canadian scientists and researchers have access to Compute Canada’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC) cloud-based computer system. ARC is operated by regional partners across the country, providing massive data storage, systems and software solutions. 

Canada’s investment in cloud-based computer research will be accelerated by the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization (NDRIO), created by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, which has set aside $375-million for investment in digital research infrastructure over the next five years. This investment will fund expansion of research-focused cloud computing capability in Canada.
Dr. J.J. Kavelaars, the head of the Canadian Astronomy Centre, explains that Compute Canada and its regional partners are currently in transition to form a coordinated national organization. When the transition is complete, NDRIO will provide oversight, expansion and maintenance of what was the Compute Canada system. The goal is to provide world-class cloud computing access for Canadian researchers. 

Astronomers need massive computing capacity in their search for planets. An observation telescope in space and a specialized camera are used to capture multiple images of the area of focus. All those captured images of planets create a massive amount of data to be analyzed. 

With the viewer and the star aligned, when a planet transits in front of the star, it blocks a portion of the star’s light; over time, the captured images are compared to identify a dip in light, indicating a transiting planet. Orbits can take as long as a year, or longer, and observations can only happen at night and in good weather. Three transits recorded will confirm there is a planet orbiting the star. This data, once refined, is stored and accessed on Canada’s ARC system. Then Rowe and his team of astrophysicists apply algorithms to sort and verify possibilities for planets that fit the criteria of potentially supporting biology. The results of these calculations forms a list of candidate planets.

“There is no reason for one researcher to go out and buy their own specialized supercomputer. Instead it becomes this cloud computing service, where there is a central platform that is available to researchers so they can access [computer service] readily,” Rowe explains. “That becomes a shared resource instead. It significantly reduces the overall cost and, in a lot of cases, actually makes it more efficient for researchers to get access to state-of-the-art facilities.” 

Canada is leading the way in this research, in part because of our cloud computing capability. “Canadians have driven exoplanet research for the last 30 years,” Rowe says. “Canadians developed the technology that led to the first discovery of extra solar planets. Canadians working in the U.S. were the first to discover transiting exoplanets. Canadians were the ones that developed the capabilities for doing imaging of planets close to their host star for the first time, and now Canadians are on the forefront of mapping out atmospheres of distant planets to ask if there is any type of biology present.”

Finding answers

“My big goal was to answer that question: ‘Are we alone in the universe? Is there life beyond Earth?’ I think it’s a tough question,” Rowe admits. “I want people to know that within the next decade, we have our first opportunity of really answering that question. There are some exciting big telescopes that are coming online in the next couple of years that have the capability of observing what the atmospheres of these distant planets are made of. We’re going to be using that information to ask, ‘Is there a biology that is present and driving the compilation of these atmospheres?’ There is the potential to have a direct answer to the question, are we alone in the universe?”

The 12-year-old kid would be astounded by his future accomplishments and the exciting discoveries that lie ahead. And Dr. Rowe’s younger self would be mesmerized by the computational power of Canada’s cloud-based computing capability. 

Advanced Research Computing (ARC)

Canada’s national ARC platform is delivered through the Compute Canada Federation (CCF), which is a partnership of Compute Canada, regional organizations (WestGrid, Compute Ontario, Calcul Québec and ACENET) and institutions across Canada. Providing researchers with access to the infrastructure and expertise they need to accomplish globally competitive, data-driven, transformative research, it serves the needs of nearly 16,000 users, including over 4,400 faculty based at Canadian institutions (as of January 2020).

2018: The Canadian government announces a five-year investment of $572.5M with the goal of increasing processing power by 50 percent and doubling graphics capability.

• $375M to develop national New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization, a national non-profit organization

• $50M to expand the five existing ARC sites at: University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and McGill University (with other partners contributing another $40M, for a total of $90M)

• $145M investment in CANARIE, Canada’s ultra-high-speed network manager (includes $8M for Northern Connectivity program, and $137M for cyber security)

Current hardware summary and capacity

• Funding from the federal government has increased the capacity of the national ARC platform on Cedar (Simon Fraser University), Graham (University of Waterloo), Niagara (University of Toronto), Béluga (Calcul Québec) and Arbutus (University of Victoria) to 238,144 CPU cores, 43,472 cloud CPUs (vCPUs), 2,706 GPUs and 347.7 PB (petabyte is 1015 bytes, equivalent to 1,000 terabytes) of storage as of March 31, 2020.

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