The Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO) is, by design, coming of age at a time of profound change in the nature of research in astronomy. Data acquisition rates are increasing to petabyte/year levels, and beyond, with archival holdings soon to be measured as tens or hundreds of petabytes, and on to exabytes. Already the research community has hundreds of terabytes of data available online, and there is enormous science potential to be unleashed by the ability to find relevant datasets, access them, compare them quantitatively, and ultimately understand their astrophysical implications.
- The VAO makes it easy for researchers to connect large data sets with high performance computational resources to aid analysis, detect and visualize hidden patterns, and bring understanding.
- The VAO provides the data discovery, access, and integration framework that enables researchers to navigate through this daunting sea of information.
- The VAO expands the discovery space beyond the horizon.
The VAO is an operational facility, providing a firm ground of support for users: reliable services, documented and robust applications, responsive answerline support, tools and libraries that support custom applications, and training and professional outreach programs. The VAO develops new capabilities in response to community needs, as is the case for all of our national research facilities. In the international context, the VAO must also continue the standardization process, enriching interfaces and adopting and adapting new underlying technologies.
The VAO’s impact goes far beyond the astronomical research community. The VAO provides a platform of unprecedented potential for public outreach and education. VAO-enabled programs such as Google Sky and Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope (WWT) bring astronomical data to classrooms and households, opening up new avenues of exploration, novel possibilities for curriculum development, and the engagement of citizen scientists who can contribute to the advancement and dissemination of scientific knowledge. The VAO exemplifies the value of our nation's investment in fundamental information technologies: grid computing, data-mining and visualization algorithms, and advanced data storage and curation methods. The Virtual Observatory has already touched the visionaries in dozens of other disciplines, and is beginning to have an impact right at home, on the desktops and laptops of astronomers, students, teachers, and enthusiastic amateur astronomers.
A united vision of global data access through a network of interconnected archives and databases, all speaking a common language of standard interfaces and protocols, has been taken up by the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA). We now have greater visibility and connectivity among astronomical data and service providers than ever before, and organizations have opened up access to data that were previously restricted or inaccessible. The technical and sociological changes catalyzed by the VO in astronomy are now affecting virtually all scientific research disciplines.
- Virtual Astronomical Observatory Science Site
- International Virtual Observatory Alliance
- The Role of the Virtual Observatory in the Next Decade (2010 Decadal Survey White Paper)