Coming Soon: Data of Astronomical Proportions


The stars and planets are no less fascinating to humans today that they were to prehistoric man. Mankind compulsively makes records of what we observe. Sophisticated computers and programs are necessary for us to be able to store, retrieve, and make sense of all that data.

Chinese CalendarThe first Chinese records of astronomy are from about 3000 BC. Chinese astrology which interpreted omens begat Chinese astronomy whose purpose was to accurately record time, to predict real events, such as lunar eclipses. The Chinese calendar was made up of 12 lunar periods, a 365.25 day long year. Babylonians recorded information about Venus on clay tablets around 1600 BC. Today, above and beyond naked eye observations, man has highly honed instruments that shed light on our amazing universe.

The planet Venus was noted by ancient peoples because it, like our moon, can be seen in the sky at both day break and night fall, causing some to think she was two separate entities. Her power was such that the Mayans developed a religious calendar based her movements and the Maasai of Africa created a legend around her. In our time, Mariner 2 did a fly by which indicated that Venus had a hot surface, high surface pressures and an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. She has a continuous cloud cover and no detectable magnetic field.

Cosmic magnetism is caused by motions of huge, thin clouds of gas which are electrically charged. Our Earth?s magnetic field acts as a protective shield against energetic solar and interstellar particles. Light emitted by stars and galaxies can be seen by the naked eye and powerful telescopes, but even our largest telescopes cannot see electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space. The most powerful probes of astrophysical magnetic fields are radio waves. The in-planning Square Kilometre Array, (SKA) will be the most sensitive radio based telescope, It will be able to detect radio emissions from distant galaxies, then use the Faraday rotation concept to gather data about them. It is scheduled to begin construction in 2016.

LSST digital camera will have over 3 billion pixels Image Credit: LSST Collaboration
LSST digital camera will have over 3 billion pixels. Image Credit: LSST Collaboration

Over the years, astronomy technology has improved thanks in part to the development of telescopes that can scan larger and larger portions of the sky. Coming in 2015, a new telescope will have a digital camera with ? gotta spell this one out ? three point two billion pixels. It?s called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and will reside in Chile. It will be looking for fast moving or changing objects, dark matter, and dark energy. The camera’s design team was led by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University researchers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. The data it accumulates will eventually be available to the public. LSST will require a data management facility that can handle tens of terabytes of data each day.

New algorithms will be necessary that will enable us to make discoveries via searches for correlations of data within several disciplines. The LSST data base knocks the socks off DB2, MySQL and Oracle. It will include image metadata consisting of 700 million rows and an object catalog with 20 billion rows each with 200+ attributes, just for starters. Scientists are anticipating diverse multidisciplinary research which will tackle machine learning (data mining), exploratory data analysis, scientific visualization, computational science and distributed computing. Technicians, scientists, and researchers across a large spectrum must learn to cope with extremely huge data bases.

Team members with the JWST full-scale model at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: NASA
Team members with the JWST full-scale model at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: NASA

The well-known Hubble Space Telescope, doesn’t take whole sky images. An orbiting space telescope, GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) made whole sky ultraviolet data-intensive measurements possible at a depth and resolution not before achieved according to Alberto Conti the Innovation Scientist for the James Web Space Telescope (JWST). GALEX helped to pave the way for searching large collections of objects with a different searchable archive. The JWST itself, an infrared-optimized telescope will gather still more information with its 6.5 meter (21.3 feet) mirror when it launches in 2018 to orbit 1 million miles from Earth.

Generic high level view of a data base management system

Generic high level view of a data base management system

All these new instruments can produce petabytes (a thousand terabytes) of data. So put on your thinking cap and perhaps you can help scientists develop a better way to access and utilize that data.