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UAF Gains Increased Computing Power That Can Save Lives

Jul 21, 2021 | Education, Telecom & Tech

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A new high-performance computing cluster hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and provided by the federal government can help save lives and benefit national defense.

The computing cluster arrived at the UAF Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Satellite Facility earlier this year through funding by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The addition of the high-performance computers marks a significant expansion of the Alaska Satellite Facility’s capabilities.

The computing cluster, given the name Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, is designed for processing terrain imagery obtained by satellites for the US government. It will process image data faster and produce maps in greater detail than current systems and at a cost savings to the government.

“This is a powerful demonstration of how technology implemented at UAF can benefit the nation and emphasizes the importance of the Alaska Satellite Facility and the University of Alaska in making that benefit a reality,” said Nettie La Belle-Hamer, director of the Alaska Satellite Facility and UAF’s interim vice chancellor for research.

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The Alaska Satellite Facility is a part of the GeoData Cooperative, a collection of six public and private partners led by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Having improved maps is important for civilian needs, such as rescue operations in natural disasters, and for military purposes, including humanitarian missions.

“At the end of the day, it’s saving a soldier’s life on the ground, it’s saving people’s lives when an earthquake happens, it’s helping to do a rescue mission safer,” said Karen Diener, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency system engineering and technical assistant who has been in Fairbanks overseeing Athena for the agency.

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The function of the Athena cluster differs notably from the Alaska Satellite Facility’s other purpose, which has been — and continues to be — the downlinking, processing, distribution and archiving of synthetic aperture radar data from NASA’s Earth Observing System satellites for use by public and private researchers and others.

“Athena isn’t downlinking the data; that’s being done elsewhere,” said Helena Buurman, the Athena project manager. “We’re taking the data and we’re processing the satellite imagery, and we’re creating the products. Athena is the central part of this workflow for the government.”

Diener said Athena’s arrival is a key component of fulfilling the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s mission of providing global geospatial data and geospatial intelligence to support the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and the United States’ national security objectives. She added that it aligns with UAF’s designation by the department in 2018 as a University Affiliated Research Center, with the directive to perform research focused on geophysical detection of nuclear proliferation. The department’s designation was given to UAF’s Wilson Alaska Technical Center, one of 17 UARCs nationwide but the only one tasked with nuclear proliferation detection.

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