Two revolutions

Ken Tapping, February 1, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • The evening sky is dominated by two brilliant planets, looking like two escaped aircraft landing lights.
  • Venus lies in the southwest after sunset, and Jupiter higher in the sky and to the left. Venus looks brighter and whiter.
  • Mars rises around 9 p.m., Saturn at midnight.
  • The Moon will be Full on February 7.

Over the last couple of decades two revolutions have been taking place in astronomy. Firstly, there is the revolution in new instruments, made possible by newly-developed technologies. This is leading to a shift in the way we use telescopes. It used to be that survey work — collecting large amounts of general data rather than specialized data on objects of special interest — was done with older instruments. Observing time on new, front-line facilities was too precious to dedicate to long-term projects. Two additional difficulties with survey projects is that they can produce a lot of data, which we were ill-equipped to handle, nor had we the tools needed to explore the data efficiently. This does not mean that the importance of surveys was not appreciated. To truly assess how different some object is, we have to compare it with a large number of others. To determine whether Fred is unusually tall requires comparing his height with that of lots of other people. That same rule applies to stars, planets, galaxies and everything else.

Surveying is now the name of the game. We have instruments that can collect a wide range of information from many objects at once; we have data systems that can handle and store it, and special tools to help us examine that data. Some of these methods involve exotic techniques such as artificial intelligence, data mining, and a new science called data visualization. That brings us to the second revolution. This one is a quieter one, but is producing just as big an impact.

Not that long ago, the data from an observing session using a public-funded instrument, such as the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, remained easily accessible only to the astronomers who made the observations. Now, thanks to cheap data storage and the Internet, it has become feasible to change the game. After a grace period, most data ends up in data centres where it can be accessed and downloaded by anyone. Lots of discoveries these days are coming from re-examination of data that was obtained originally for other purposes.

We've now progressed even further. Many observatories, amateur and professional, are now posting data on the Web almost as soon as they get it. If you want images of the Sun taken within the last hour or two, just look on the Web. Some observatories can be operated over the Internet. If you want Hubble images or data from the Mars Rovers, it's all there. You don't have to be a professional scientist. Apart from getting more science per dollar, these new revolutions make that science accessible to all of us. If there are embryo scientists out there, this should help hatch them. 

Not long ago, Kathryn Gray, a 10-year-old from New Brunswick, Canada, discovered a supernova — an exploding star in a distant galaxy — using observatory data available over the Internet. Access to data obtained using front-line and near-front-line instruments is no longer confined to the fortunate few. I just wish it had been like that when I was starting out.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton,  BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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