virtual observatory

virtual observatory

virtual observatory, a collection of integrated astronomical data archives and software tools that utilize computer networks to create an environment in which research can be conducted. Several countries have initiated national virtual observatory programs that will combine existing databases from ground-based and orbiting observatories and make them easily accessible to researchers. As a result, data from all the world's major observatories will be available to all users and to the public. This is significant not only because of the immense volume of astronomical data but also because the data on stars and galaxies has been compiled from observations in a variety of wavelengths—optical, radio, infrared, gamma ray, X-ray and more. Each wavelength can provide different information about a celestial event or object, but also requires a special expertise to interpret. In a virtual observatory environment, all of this data is integrated so that it can be synthesized and used in a given study.

The Astrophysical Virtual Observatory Project (AVO) conducted a research and demonstration programme on the scientific requirements and technologies necessary to build a VO for European astronomy. The AVO has been jointly funded by the European Commission (under FP5 - Fifth Framework Programme) with six European organisations participating in a three year Phase-A work programme, valued at 5 million Euro. The partner organisations were the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Munich, Germany, the European Space Agency (ESA), AstroGrid (funded by PPARC as part of the UK's E-Science programme), the CNRS-supported Centre de Données Astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS), the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, the CNRS-supported TERAPIX astronomical data centre at the Institut d'Astrophysique in Paris, France, and the Jodrell Bank Observatory of the Victoria University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

The Phase A program focussed its effort in the following areas:

  • A detailed description of the science requirements for the AVO was constructed, following the experience gained in a smaller-scale science demonstration program called ASTROVIRTEL (Accessing Astronomical Archives as Virtual Telescopes).
  • The difficult issue of data and archive interoperability was addressed by new standards definitions for astronomical data and trial programmes of "joins" between specific target archives within the project team.
  • The necessary GRID and database technologies were assessed and tested for use within a full AVO implementation.

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