Feature: The Whole Universe, From the Comfort of Your PC
The universe is a big place, and studying it is an even bigger challenge. AstroGrid, a UK-government funded, open-source project, helps create universal access to observational astronomy data scattered around the globe.
Â“We needed to set up a system to meet the challenges that were coming about from new observational technologies,Â” explains Nicholas Walton from Cambridge University. Â“We used to answer our questions using one or two data sets. Now there is a lot more diversity in the data thatÂ's around.Â”
The AstroGrid consortium, which consists of 11 UK university groups, represents astronomy and computing groups with backgrounds in handling and publishing such data. The consortium worked with international partners to agree upon standards for published observational astronomy data, so that all astronomers could interact with all data sets.
These standards helped reduce diversity in astronomy data, but the data was still archived at different institutions around the world, making easy access to all data from a central location difficult to achieve. The solution was to create a Â“virtual observatoryÂ” that allows astronomers to access data from observatories around the world.
Â“WeÂ're building something that allows you to view a virtual universe from your desktop, as opposed to going to an observatory and observing the universe from there,Â” says Walton.
The AstroGrid workbench is the main user interface for astronomers accessing the virtual observatory. The global set of standards agreed upon by the consortium and its partners allows any astronomer to query the virtual observatory to ask for information on a certain area of the sky. Through AstroGrid, UK astronomers can also access workflows and applications for data analysis. AstroGrid has also created the Â“voSpaceÂ” program that allows astronomers to share their workflows.
Â“This is on the verge of making a fundamental change to how we publish results,Â” says Walton. Â“YouÂ're no longer just looking at peopleÂ's interpretation of data. People can publish all their data so that other astronomers can build on it in their own way.Â”
AstroGrid is ramping up to become a fully usable system. Â“WeÂ're being factored into many projects, such as satellite missions,Â” adds Walton. Â“WeÂ're at a stage of transition and plan to move to full-service operation at the beginning of 2008.Â”
Learn more at the AstroGrid Web site.
-- Helen Thomson, GridPP and GRIDtoday