This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Read our privacy policy

Optical networks support astronomy in the Chinese province of Yunnan

(Posted April 2024) Most people assume that astronomy largely involves looking at the stars with a telescope. This was true a long time ago. But ever since computers were invented, the science of astronomy has largely been about processing images, sounds, and other data from outer space with the help of increasingly powerful machines. The amount of data to be shared and studied is, pun intended, astronomical.

Watch the video to see how optical networks are revolutionizing space research

Data analysis is mostly performed by researchers based in cities, whereas the telescopes and other instruments that collect the data are in extremely remote places unaffected by light pollution. In China, many of the best observatories are in faraway corners of the vast province of Yunnan in the country’s southwest. 

Transferring data from remote observatories to places where they are studied and processed is no small undertaking. Decades ago, before floppy disks and hard drives, researchers used to ship observation data held on magnetic tapes to colleagues in cities, which delayed work by days or even weeks. More recently, the advent of smaller and easier-to-ship CDs and flash drives have speeded things up.

Sharing data more quickly has become a challenge for astronomy. In Yunnan, the deployment of optical network technologies is providing a solution. Shown here, two astronomers at the Fuxian Lake Observatory. 

The ideal state, instant sharing, is now achievable. Working with China Mobile Yunnan, Huawei is setting up an optical network that will enable observatories in the province to transmit their data without delay to a computing center in the provincial capital of Kunming, a city of 6.5 million. 

“I focus on the processing of massive amounts of data,” says Wang Jianguo, deputy researcher at Yunnan observatory. “Modern astronomical observation provides us new ways to understand the universe. But effective observation is only the first step. The storage, transmission, and processing of massive amounts of data are the challenges facing modern astronomy.”

One of the facilities operated by Yunnan Observatories

The space observation instruments in use nowadays all generate a lot of data. There are over 20 telescopes at Lijiang Astronomical Observatory, including a powerful 2.4-meter one. In some scientific research projects, a single exposure can produce nearly 1GB of observation data. During the course of a single night of observation, the data generated can exceed 2.5 terabytes.

Wang Jianguo (at keyboard) manning the telescope at a facility in Lijiang, Yunnan

To deliver the promised data sharing capabilities to Yunnan Observatories, Huawei and China Mobile aren’t starting from scratch. Rather, they are mostly extending to the remote observatories a fiber trunk to the excellent optical network infrastructure that is already in place throughout the province. In 2021, the two partners announced that they had completed their “1-3-9” all-optical smart city project in the province. It delivers network latency below 1 millisecond (ms) in Kunming, 3ms to central Yunnan, and 9ms to South and Southeast Asia.

Yunnan Observatories possesses a 2.4m telescope (shown here)

“China Yunnan Mobile has established a province-wide green all-optical network, enabling the secure and rapid transmission of raw data collected by observatories such as the Lijiang observatory and Fuxian Lake Observatory to the Kunming Computing Center,” says Li Can, Planning Department Project Manager at China Mobile Yunnan. “The integration of all optical transport and computing power forms a seamless network between observatories and Kunming center.”

Yunnan Observatories is already an established contributor to global astronomy. For instance, it discovered in 2014 the brightest quasar in the early universe. Instant sharing of data with major universities and astronomy institutes in China and abroad will facilitate the work of Yunnan researchers as they strive to deepen our understanding of the universe. 

By getting away from the lights of the cities, the world's observatories can capture better data from the sky.