The next-best view: access to Hubble's data

Astronomers who manage to join Hubble Telescope research groups enjoy front-row seats at the cosmic show. Now, the European Commission wants to do something for scientists who can't get tickets.

Competition for use of the Hubble and major ground-based observatories is so keen that less than one-fourth of the requests are granted. Meanwhile, those telescopes fill databanks with information that may already hold the answers disappointed applicants seek.

Enter ASTROVIRTEL - a project to enable scientists to mine those data mountains. Project coordinator Piero Benvenuti, director of the Space Telescope at the European Coordinating Facility in Garching, Germany, says this is different from the make-what-you-can-of-it access scientists already have to astronomical archives. He explains that "astronomers are now invited to regard the archive as an 'observatory' in its own right: a facility that, when properly used, may provide an answer to their specific questions." That means exploring databanks in ways that are as efficient and specific as turning a real telescope on an astronomical object under investigation.

Doing this requires new software search tools and databases organized for efficient searching. Success in this astronomical data mining could help scientists generally. For example, research using new particle accelerators or decoding the human genome will swamp scientists with their data flows. The Hubble telescope - a joint project of US and European space agencies- generated 3.5 trillion data bytes during the 1990s. Dealing with that data flow was like drinking from a fire hose. The combined archive for the Hubble and the European Southern Observatory at Garching will hold more than 100 trillion bytes in four years, according to data manager Peter Quinn.

In the US, the National Science Foundation's Knowledge Discovery Initiative is developing ways to meet this challenge. The European Commission-sponsored ASTROVIRTEL (www.stecf.org/astrovirtel) will complement this search.

Astronomers have opened several "new windows" on the universe in the past half century - using radio waves, X-rays, and infrared light. Now they plan to open what Mr. Quinn calls "new digital windows," whose discoveries may be as spectacular as any Hubble has so-far revealed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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