The hunt for EMU eggs is on

By Fiona McFarlane

24 March 2016

Our Easter EMU eggs will be used to test our WTF.

Our EMU eggs will be used to test our Widefield ouTlier Finder (WTF).

Easter Sunday dawns bright and sunny, excited kids jump out of bed and the hunt is on. Where to look? Who will find the most? Will some be missed altogether?

One of the best things about Easter is the fun of an Easter egg hunt which could explain why the term “Easter Eggs” has been adopted into the  entertainment industry where it is used to describe “an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software or on a DVD, included as a joke or a bonus”.

Longtime fans of the Star Wars movies waited with keen anticipation for the Easter eggs they hoped would be hidden in the most recent release of Episode 7 of the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and they were not disappointed.

The idea of hiding surprises in computer games, such as a unexpected funny characters, references to famous movie quotes or even plot disclosures has been around almost as long as the industry itself,  but one thing the use of Easter eggs in the gaming industry have in common, is that they are traditionally hard to find.

Now, our scientists and their colleagues at Western Sydney University are using ‘Easter Eggs’ as objects of surprise in their search to understand how galaxies form and evolve as part of the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) project.

The EMU project has been established to create a census of radio sources in the sky, which is going to mean the collection of a lot of data. The estimate is that the EMU team expect to find about 70 million galaxies, a large increase from the 2.5 million we currently know of.

Understandably, this is too much data for anyone to look through and so our scientists have created the Widefield ouTlier Finder (WTF) project. The WTF project is developing new ways to search through the data to find outliers that may lead to discoveries beyond the limits of current astronomical knowledge.

The WTF is being developed using a cloud computing platform, hosted on Amazon Web Services servers, that learns how to find unexpected bits of science that might otherwise not be found.

But how can we be sure that the computer program can find these unexpected bits of data that we don’t know about yet?

Enter the use of Easter eggs (known to our scientists as EMU eggs) as one of the ways to test the WTF system to recognise things that systematically depart from our known categories of astronomical objects. The team are manually inserting aberrations (EMU eggs – objects that pose a challenge to current data mining algorithms) into the data to test that the cloud-based computer program can actually find them.

At the moment, the infrastructure is in place for users to start processing the data to check whether their software has ‘learnt’ to find these hidden bits of unexpected discoveries – while they may be a little late for this Easter who knows what might be found by Easter 2017?

EMU has received a grant to develop a cloud computing platform for machine learning as part of the AstroCompute in the Cloud collaboration, driven by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the SKA Telescope. The collaboration is intended to accelerate the development of innovative tools and techniques for processing, storing and analysing the global astronomy community’s vast amounts of astronomic data in the cloud.

For more information about ASKAP, visit our website.