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SCIENCE REPORT - November 29, 2001: National Virtual Observatory - 2001-11-28

This is the VOA Special English Science Report.

The National Science Foundation is providing ten-million dollars to develop a program that will permit astronomers to share scientific information. The program is called the National Virtual Observatory. The new observatory will not have a telescope. Instead, it will put huge amounts of space information on the Internet’s World Wide Web. Anyone with a computer will be able to use the information. Scientists, teachers and students will be able to study the universe online.

Astronomers from seventeen research centers will work on the project. The project is headed by Alex Szalay of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and Paul Messina of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The new Web site will include a large number of different information systems in one place. Currently, telescope observations made at one observatory are kept in its own computer information system. Information gathered by spacecraft is also kept in similar systems. Today, there is no way to search all these different information systems through one computer Web site.

The National Virtual Observatory will be designed so that many information systems can be searched from one Web site. However, this project is more complex than simply creating an information base organized with normal computer systems. A special system is necessary because of the huge amounts of information involved.

Information from experiments and observations has increased at a very fast rate in the space sciences of astronomy and astrophysics. Today, many kinds of telescopes make observations that are stored in computers.

So much information can be stored in computers that it has become difficult to process. Also, some astronomers may not know of observations done at other observatories. This could cause researchers to perform the same studies over and over again. The National Virtual Observatory will permit astronomers to find out very quickly if information already exists to help their own research.

Experts say the National Virtual Observatory represents an important step in astronomy. Astronomers now must gather and organize huge amounts of information. Soon, this information will be open to everyone.

This VOA Special English Science Report was written by Mario Ritter.