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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Grid helps science go sky-high
The Hubble Space Telescope, AP
Instruments like the Hubble are changing our view of the Universe
test hello test
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
line
Astronomers could be among the first to reap the rewards of plans to turn the internet into a vast pool of computer processing power.

The three-year Astrogrid project is attempting to give astronomers a common way of accessing and manipulating diverse data archives.

The project will also help scientists cope with the wave of data that novel telescopes and instruments are expected to generate.

The researchers behind the initiative believe astronomers will only be able to do meaningful science with this wealth of new data by tapping the net's huge information processing potential.

Day-to-day data delay

Astrogrid is a 5m project that attempts to put a single, friendly interface on the huge number of astronomical archives and data sets currently held online.

It is one of many projects inspired by research on ways of using the computers attached to the net as a coupled supercomputer or a storage system with almost limitless capacity.

Coronal mass ejection, PA
The Grid could help with forecasts of space weather
Nicholas Walton, project scientist for Astrogrid, said many astronomers currently spent a lot of their time hunting for data or turning what they needed into a form they could use.

"Data sets are archived but not always in the same format or in a way that's accessible to all," said Dr Walton.

Astrogrid will create a standard way of querying almost any astronomical database and remove any need to understand the technical quirks of an instrument to get the most out of the information.

To make this happen, the Astrogrid project is defining a "metadata" format that can be used to interpret sets of data so they can be queried through one interface similar to a web browser.


We want to enable astronomers to do more effective and economic science

Dr Nicholas Walton, Astrogrid
"We want to make it easier for everyone to have access to the same data but ensure they're presented in the same uniform way," said Dr Walton.

"We'll have been successful when they are using it but don't know they are using it," he said.

The ability to combine datasets from different sources was becoming much more important to astronomers, said Dr Walton.

Only by combining X-ray, radio, magnetic, infra-red and optical information about astronomical objects such as supernova remnants would scientists get a thorough understanding of the Universe, he said.

Instrument explosion

Astrogrid will also help astronomers cope with the enormous amounts of data that new instruments, such as the Visible & Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (Vista), are expected to produce.

radio telescope, AP
Telescope arrays generate huge amounts of data
Dr Walton said that before now total surveys of the sky were typically done once every few decades.

By contrast, Vista will survey the sky every few days and produce 100Gb of data per night.

Other planned instruments such as Europe's Very Large Telescope Array and the American space agency's Living With a Star project will produce similar reams of data.

The only way that astronomers were going to be able to archive and analyse such enormous amounts of data was by using the net as a storage system and a vast supercomputer, said Dr Walton.

Without the help of the internet, scientists would have no chance of finding the tens of objects that interest them out of the billions that instruments are recording information about.

"We want to enable astronomers to do more effective and economic science," he said.

"We want them to do the things they do now faster and to do things they cannot contemplate now."

See also:

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