Astronomers on virtual quest to map digital universe

March 4, 2003

Brussels, 03 Mar 2003

There is a huge, unexplored universe out there, but astronomers are breaking with centuries of tradition and turning away from their telescopes and towards their computers in order to unravel more of its secrets.

The impressive abilities of state-of-the-art ground and space observatories have led to a data explosion that has created a 'virtual universe' stored on computer systems around the world.

Scientists are working to build 'virtual observatories' to explore the 'digital universe' by exploiting the astronomical amounts of information scattered across the globe. This innovative system works by joining existing data centres and archives - via Grid technology - into a single information unit.

But constructing such an interlinked system is an enormous undertaking involving a coordinated effort by observatories and astronomers in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia. It requires the setting up of common standards for archiving and data mining, wide network bandwidth and the latest in analysis tools.

Voyage to inner space

European astronomers have been busy building a computer system to make the 'virtual observatory' a solid reality. After just 12 months of work, the European Astrophysical Virtual Observatory (AVO) project announced a successfully functioning prototype.

The scientists demonstrated their new software at a recent seminar. The system works by manipulating metadata - information about data - like an 'Astro-Google'. It enables 'smart browsing' of huge datasets that would be impractical to download, and it avoids having to send entire images back and forth for characterisation and analysis.

The partners in AVO are the European Southern Observatory (ESO), France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Edinburgh University, Centre de Donnees Astronomiques de Strasbourg and the Victoria University of Manchester. The EU is providing €2 million of funding for the first three years of the project. The backing was provided under the Commission's Fifth Framework Programme and AVO will apply for further funding under the new Sixth Framework Programme.


More information: AVO website

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