Special Viewpoints

The World-Wide Telescope

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Science  14 Sep 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5537, pp. 2037-2040
DOI: 10.1126/science.293.5537.2037

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All astronomy data and literature will soon be online and accessible via the Internet. The community is building the Virtual Observatory, an organization of this worldwide data into a coherent whole that can be accessed by anyone, in any form, from anywhere. The resulting system will dramatically improve our ability to do multi-spectral and temporal studies that integrate data from multiple instruments. The Virtual Observatory data also provide a wonderful base for teaching astronomy, scientific discovery, and computational science.

Many fields are now coping with a rapidly mounting problem: how to organize, use, and make sense of the enormous amounts of data generated by today's instruments and experiments. The data should be accessible to scientists and educators so that the gap between cutting-edge research and education and public knowledge is minimized and should be presented in a form that will facilitate integrative research. This problem is becoming particularly acute in many fields, notably genomics, neuroscience, and astrophysics. The availability of the Internet is allowing new ideas and concepts for data sharing and use. Here we describe a plan to develop an Internet data resource in astronomy to help address this problem in which, because of the nature of the data and analyses required of them, the data remain widely distributed rather than gathered in one or a few databases (e.g., GenBank). This approach may be applicable to many other fields. Our goal is to make the Internet act as the world's best telescope—a World-Wide Telescope.

Today, there are many impressive archives painstakingly constructed from observations associated with an instrument. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) (1), the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (2), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) (3), the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) (4), and the Digitized Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (DPOSS) (5) are examples of this. Each of these archives is interesting in itself, but temporal and multi-spectral studies require combining data from multiple instruments. Furthermore, yearly advances in electronics bring new instruments, doubling the amount of data we collect each year (Fig. 1). For example, approximately a gigapixel is deployed on all telescopes today, and new gigapixel instruments are under construction. A night's observation requires a few hundred gigabytes of memory. The processed data for a single spectral band over the whole sky, a few terabytes. It is impossible for each astronomer to have a private copy of all the data they use. Many of these new instruments are being used for systematic surveys of our galaxy and of the distant universe. Together they will give us an unprecedented catalog to study the evolving universe, provided that the data can be systematically studied in an integrated fashion.

Online archives already contain raw and derived astronomical observations of billions of objects from both temporal and multi-spectral surveys. Together, they house an order of magnitude more data than any single instrument. In addition, all the astronomy literature is online and is cross-indexed with the observations (6, 7).

Why is it necessary to study the sky in such detail? Celestial objects radiate energy over an extremely wide range of wavelengths from radio waves to infrared, optical to ultraviolet, x-rays and even gamma rays. Each of these observations carries important information about the nature of the objects. The same physical object can appear to be totally different in different wavebands (Fig. 2). A young spiral galaxy appears as many concentrated “blobs,” the so-called HII regions in the ultraviolet, whereas in the optical it appears as smooth spiral arms. A galaxy cluster can only be seen as an aggregation of galaxies in the optical, whereas x-ray observations show the hot and diffuse gas between the galaxies.

The physical processes inside these objects can only be understood by combining observations at several wavelengths. Today, we already have large sky coverage in 10 spectral regions; soon we will have additional data in at least five more bands. These will reside in different archives, making their integration all the more complicated.

Raw astronomy data is complex. It can be in the form of fluxes measured in finite size pixels on the sky, spectra (flux as a function of wavelength), individual photon events, or even phase information from the interference of radio waves.

In many other disciplines, once data is collected, it can be frozen and distributed to other locations. This is not the case for astronomy. Astronomy data needs to be calibrated for the transmission of the atmosphere and for the response of the instruments. This requires an exquisite understanding of all the properties of the whole system, which sometimes takes several years. With each new understanding of how corrections should be made, the data are reprocessed and recalibrated. As a result, data in astronomy stays “live” much longer than in other disciplines—it needs an active “curation,” mostly by the expert group that collected the data.

Consequently, astronomy data reside at many different geographical locations, and that will not change. There will not be a central “Astronomy database.” Each group has its own historical reasons to archive the data one way or another. Any solution that tries to federate the astronomy data sets must start with the premise that this trend is not going to change substantially in the near future; there is no top-down way to simultaneously rebuild all data sources.

To solve these problems, the astrophysical community is developing the World-Wide Telescope, often called the “Virtual Observatory” (8). In this approach, the data will primarily be accessed via digital archives that are widely distributed. The actual telescopes will either be dedicated to surveys that feed the archives, or telescopes will be scheduled to follow up on “interesting” phenomena found in the archives. Astronomers will look for patterns in the data—spectral and temporal, known and unknown—and use these to study various object classes. They will have a variety of tools at their fingertips: a unified search engine, to collect and aggregate data from several large archives simultaneously, and a huge distributed computing resource, to perform the analyses close to the data, in order to avoid moving petabytes of data across the networks.

Other sciences have comparable efforts of putting all their data online and in the public domain—GenBank in genomics is a good example—but so far these are centralized rather than federated systems.

The Virtual Observatory will give everyone access to data that span the entire spectrum, the entire sky, all historical observations, and all the literature. For publications, data will reside at a few sites maintained by the publishers. These archive sites will support simple searches. More complex analyses will be done with imported data extracts at the user's facility.

Time on the instrument will be available to all. Thus, the Virtual Observatory should make it easy to conduct such temporal and multi-spectral studies by automating the discovery and the assembly of the necessary data.

One of the main uses of the Virtual Observatory will be to facilitate searches where statistics are critical. We need large samples of galaxies in order to understand the fine details of the expanding universe and of galaxy formation. These statistical studies require multicolor imaging of millions of galaxies and measurement of their distances. We need to perform statistical analyses as a function of their observed type, environment, and distance.

Other projects study rare objects, ones that do not fit typical patterns; they search for the needles in the haystack. To this end, the use of multi-spectral observations is an enormous help. Colors of objects reflect their temperature. And in the expanding Universe, the light emitted by distant objects is redshifted. Therefore, searching for extremely red objects finds either extremely cold objects or extremely distant ones. Data mining studies of extremely red objects discovered distant quasars, the latest at a redshift of 6.28 (9). Mining the 2MASS and SDSS archives found many cold objects such as brown dwarfs, which are bigger than a planet yet smaller than a star. These are good examples of multiwavelength searches not possible with a single observation of the sky, done by hand today, automated in the future. We do not even know all of the data that existed; we will have to discover them on the fly.

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