Digitally Archiving the Universe

National Center for Supercomputing Applications using Linux clusters to help build Digital Virtual Observatory.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) is helping to build the infrastructure for the National Virtual Observatory, a project the agency says will make astronomy research based on archival data easier and more efficient by use of grid services and NCSA computing resources.

According to the NCSA, the Digital Virtual Observatory will make heavy use of new Linux clusters as part of TeraGrid, a project to build and deploy the world's largest, fastest, distributed infrastructure for open scientific research.

An overwhelming abundance of astronomical research prompted the observatory project. As a rule, when observing astronomers have completed a study for something specific in the data they have collected, they make it available to the public. That information is building up at a daunting pace.

In addition to growing optical and radio astronomical data repositories, vast amounts of high-energy and infrared data are also accumulating.

"We are just beginning to open up the multi-wavelength universe, said Robert Brunner, an assistant professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a research scientist at NCSA. "Data are increasing at an exponential rate."

One way to access archival data is simply to search known repositories, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or warehouses such as the NASA Extragalactic Database. These archives, accessed via Web browsers, are likely to be frequently bookmarked by researchers.

However, "certain kinds of questions are not easily answered by bookmarks," said Ray Plante, a radio astronomer and research programmer at NCSA. Often, says Plante, valuable information may be found in more obscure but equally useful catalogues or observatories, but the search process can be time-consuming.

"Once you discover these sources, where do you find information about your question, and how do you get at that information efficiently? You may find a thousand different text links, but should you visit them all?" added Plante.

The NCSA is working to define the future's high-performance computing infrastructure for scientists. NCSA creates the hardware, software, and tools that will make up the grid.

The grid will assemble the country's most advanced technologies into a single system that will "advance science beyond what is possible today."

NCSA opened its doors in January 1986 as one of the five original centers in the National Science Foundation's Supercomputer Centers Program and a unit of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. NCSA greatly broadened the user base of remote supercomputing and the Internet with NCSA Telnet in 1987.

In 1992, the center introduced NCSA Mosaic, the first readily-available graphical Web browser.

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