National Virtual Observatory will put skies online

$10 million project aims to collect existing data

November 01, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Astronomers who chose their profession for the romance of cold, starry nights under an observatory dome may soon find they're making even more of their discoveries seated at their office computers.

The National Science Foundation has launched a five-year, $10 million project to develop a National Virtual Observatory that will enable scientists, teachers and students to study the stars and galaxies at warp speed, by gazing into the vast data archives of the world's top observatories.

"The same work could be done now, but it might take a scientist 10 years to reach a certain result," said Eileen Friel, who heads the science foundation's astronomy division.

With the virtual observatory, "conceivably, in certain cases, you could reach that same result in an hour."

The project will enlist scientists at 17 institutions, led by Johns Hopkins University astronomer Alexander Szalay and Paul C. Messina, director of the California Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Computing Research.

Different organization

Szalay said the archives of at least 10 observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, are already accessible to astronomers. But each is organized differently.

"You have to go in, one by one, and learn about its quirks. You have to know a lot. It's quite a lot of work," he said.

The project's key challenge will be to standardize and simplify access to all the archives, and blend them in a way that is invisible to the computer user.

State-of-the-art software tools will enable scientists to quickly find and analyze the data they need amid a huge and growing stockpile.

The available archives now total about 100 terabytes - the equivalent of 160,000 compact discs or 100 million novels. And as technology and technique evolve, the sum doubles every year.

In this gusher of data, astronomers might not know that the observations they need have already been done.

"And you can't blame them, because there's no coherent way to find out," Szalay said.

Instead of waiting months or years for the telescope time he needs to identify a target, and even longer to make his observations, Szalay said, an astronomer using the National Virtual Observatory could zero in on the right stars online, and perhaps even find the data he needs in observations already conducted for other purposes, by someone else.

"If I'm lucky, I can do the project right away, in a matter of weeks, because I still have to do some of my own analysis," Szalay said.

An astronomer could also explore a given star or galaxy in a variety of wavelengths - visible light, X-rays, infrared, radio or gamma rays gathered by a variety of specialized observatories - gaining insights he might otherwise have missed.

Messina said the virtual observatory initially will include several dozen major databases.

"But ultimately one of the challenges is to be able to accommodate hundreds, or thousands" of smaller, more specialized collections, he said.

More telescope time

The virtual observatory would speed some research and free up precious telescope time for other work, Szalay said, "in the same way that, with the [World Wide] Web, we can get our license plates renewed, and we don't have to stand on line at the DMV."

Friel said the National Virtual Observatory will also "democratize" astronomy for scientists "who have difficulty getting time on telescopes, or at smaller institutions that don't have a lot of resources to obtain their own data."

Astronomers might spend fewer nights under the stars, Szalay said. But much of that time has been spent laying the routine groundwork for discovery.

"The real excitement comes when you're at the telescope and you discover something new," he said.

With the observatory, "we want to be able to minimize the routine part of that so people can focus on the discovery part."

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