People 'n' Issues

Virtual Observatory brings astronomy big data to all

May 13th, 2016
Big telescopes are no longer the primary aspiration for budding astronomers. Welcome to the era of big data in astronomy.

By “mining” the huge amount of astronomical data online, astronomers can now do cutting edge science without ever setting foot in an actual telescope observatory. This is not just huge for the astronomy field, but the principles developed within astronomy can be applied in just about any industry that deals with big .

The Virtual Observatory (VO) provides tools and protocols that facilitate access to online collections of astronomical data. These enable astronomers to work just as well in a small rural university, or even at home, as in an international observatory or large research university – provided they have access to the Internet and a good scientific education. It also adds value to expensive infrastructure by allowing data to be used and reused many times.

The first meeting of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA) to take place on the African Continent is currently under way at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS). It presents an opportunity to showcase developments surrounding astronomy in this country.

The meeting was preceded by an educator workshop on Virtual Observatory tools and applications, hosted by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) last week. Following the meeting, a workshop will be held at the University of Zululand in Kwa-Zulu Natal for university students and lecturers.

The objective of the IVOA meeting is to provide a semi-annual venue for discussion and development of virtual observatory standards and VO-based applications. It also provides a formal opportunity for face-to-face meetings of the IVOA Executive and the various working groups.

The meeting was opened by the CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Dr Molapo Qhobela, who in his introductory remarks expressed his delight that South Africa is hosting the first IVOA Interoperability meeting in Africa. This meeting is attended by over 90 registered participants from different astronomy institutes and observatories across the globe.

Kevin Govender, from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), is among the plenary speakers in the education session on Friday, and will explore the role of virtual observatory tools in education and development.  Christophe Arviset (European Space Agency) is the Chair of IVOA Executive. Local organization of the meeting is by Prof Patricia Whitelock from the South African Astro-informatics Alliance (SA3) and colleagues.

The Virtual Observatory (VO) is an international astronomical community-based initiative. It aims to allow global electronic access to astronomical data archives from space and ground-based observatories. It is a collection of tools for accessing and visualizing multi-wavelength data that collectively provide a scientific environment, rather than a physical observatory.

A vast array of astronomical data-sets are already available at all wavelengths and many more are on the way. Amongst the largest will be SKA at radio wavelengths and the Large Scale Synoptic Survey Telescope at optical wavelengths. These very large databases will be archived and, through the VO, made accessible in a systematic and uniform manner to realise the full potential of the existing and future observing facilities.

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