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NOAO Newsletter - Director's Office - June 2000 - Number 62


Planning New Approaches to Surveys and Data Exploration

Steve Strom

In the past, astronomical experiments have typically been constrained by the need to select small samples, often strongly guided by a priori assumptions. We can now plan far more objective approaches based on deep images of wide areas of the sky spanning a range of wavelengths, or spectra of millions of objects.

The past decade has witnessed the advent of a number of ambitious surveys that take advantage of the revolutions in digital detectors and computing power to carry out unbiased surveys of the sky. The initial returns from these first generation digital surveys are already impressive--ranging from the discovery of galaxies at z > 5, to gravitational micro-lensing events, to methane-dominated T dwarfs (a link between stars and planets).

As we look ahead, the astronomical community stands poised to take advantage of the continuing breathtaking advances (factor of two increases each 18 months) in computational speed, storage media, and detector technology in two ways: (1) by carrying out new generation surveys spanning a wide range of wavelengths and optimized to exploit these advances fully; and (2) by developing the software tools to enable discovery of new patterns in the multi-terabyte (and later petabyte) databases that represent their legacies. In combination, new generation surveys and software tools can provide the basis for enabling science of a qualitatively different natureby searching for coincidences, new patterns, unexpected correlations, and transient phenomena from examination of an ever-changing, polychromatic "movie" of the universe.

Fast networks, intelligently structured archives, archive inquiry tools, and fast computing platforms will enable large numbers of scientists to access these data. The richness of these databases promises scientific returns reaching far beyond the primary objectives of the survey. For example, repeated imaging surveys aimed at developing a census of Kuiper Belt objects can provide the basis for discovering supernovae at z > 1. Indeed, the multiplier effects of survey databases can be enormous--witness the world-wide explosion of research ignited by the Hubble Deep Field, drawing both on the primary database itself, and on observational campaigns with large telescopes driven by the HDF database.

In order to enable the ground-based community to exploit these opportunities for enabling qualitatively new science, PDO is working with other units within NOAO and with the broader astronomical community to:

During the past nine months, PDO has:

The PDO and SDM group are presently preparing a proposal to the NSF seeking the resources both to enable these efforts and to provide funding for teams in the community who are awarded time to carry out surveys on NOAO facilities. Such funding will allow these teams to fund pipelining and other data reduction efforts critical to populating a community-accessible archive.

The PDO is currently developing plans for a workshop aimed at defining the facility and instrumentation options, and other requirements for a next generation survey system.


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