NASA's SkyView Delivers the Multiwavelength Cosmos

February 4, 2009
Ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars lights up the galaxies M81 (left) and M82 in this composite. Credit: Credit: NASA/GALEX/DSS -STScI/Caltech/AURA

(PhysOrg.com) -- Some three million times a year, researchers, educators, and amateur astronomers all over the world ask NASA's SkyView virtual observatory to serve up images of some interesting corner of the cosmos. Since 1994, this digital archive has made access to and manipulation of celestial surveys its specialty. It boasts a full spectrum of data, ranging from radio to gamma-rays.

Many of the surveys hosted by SkyView are available through popular interactive tools like Google Sky and Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope (WWT). In fact, SkyView's most recently added survey -- the fourth data release from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite -- is available in WWT starting today.

SkyView visitors now generate an average of 300,000 images a month — up from 20,000 a month ten years ago. Over the same period, the average size of the requested images has quadrupled. So, in terms of pixels processed, SkyView's traffic has increased by more than 60 times.

This map charts the most popular cosmic locations as measured by the number of SkyView image requests since June 2007. Brighter colors indicate more views. Credit: NASA/SkyView/Thomas McGlynn

SkyView originated as a way to help astronomers deal with the ever-increasing amount of survey data. It provides a single interface for accessing more than 36 surveys covering nearly 100 wavelength bands. Anyone can create an image without having to know the particular details of a survey's data format. Behind the scenes, SkyView handles all of the drudgery — transforming, precessing, rescaling, rotating, overlaying, and mosaicking data — so astronomers can get on with doing science.

"When we were collecting data for use in WorldWide Telescope, we found that almost every new data source required special custom code to adapt it to wide-scale visualization," says Jonathan Fay, WWT's architect at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash. "SkyView added support for our spherical all-sky projection, called TOAST. This was instrumental in helping us achieve our goal of making astronomy accessible to everyone."

"SkyView has been used by WWT as an engine to convert a large number of surveys into its own format," says Thomas McGlynn, who heads the project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We made it easy for WWT to have broad survey coverage."

Measuring SkyView's success is becoming more difficult. That's because users now can download and run the project's Java-based software on their own computer to directly access data. "We don't count these requests -- only those made through SkyView's website," McGlynn says.

Where are people looking? McGlynn mapped the positions of millions of SkyView requests since the project's June 2007 redesign. The result is a portrait of the sky's most popular targets. These naturally include regions of importance to professional astronomers, such as areas mapped by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, sprawling molecular clouds in the constellations Orion and Taurus, and the locations of the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field images. Objects of wider appeal also appear, including the Milky Way, nearby satellite galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds, and the neighboring spiral galaxies M31 and M33.

"There remains a lot of structure whose origin is unclear," McGlynn notes. "For example, the plane of Earth's orbit, the ecliptic, shows up as an enhancement even though SkyView isn't intended for viewing solar system objects."

He speculates that people looking for asteroids and comets may be using SkyView to generate comparison images, seeing if the suspect object moves or disappears. But are they amateurs or professionals?

"At one time, I thought amateur astronomers accounted for about a third of SkyView's use," McGlynn says. "I'm less willing to guess at that now -- and what does it matter, anyway? SkyView is for everyone."

Provided by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Explore further: New quasar discovered by astronomers

Related Stories

New quasar discovered by astronomers

September 19, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of astronomers led by Jacob M. Robertson of the Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee has detected a new quasi-stellar object (QSO). They found the new quasar, designated SDSS J022155.26-064916.6, ...

VLA begins huge project of cosmic discovery

September 18, 2017

Astronomers have embarked on the largest observing project in the more than four-decade history of the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA)—a huge survey of the sky that promises a rich scientific ...

Giant antennas in New Mexico search for cosmic discoveries

September 19, 2017

Employing an array of giant telescopes positioned in the New Mexico desert, astronomers have started a massive surveying project aimed at producing the most detailed view ever made of such a large portion of space using radio ...

How Herschel unlocked the secrets of star formation

September 18, 2017

Surveying the sky for almost four years to observe the glow of cold cosmic dust embedded in interstellar clouds of gas, the Herschel Space Observatory has provided astronomers with an unprecedented glimpse into the stellar ...

The cosmic water trail uncovered by Herschel

September 19, 2017

During almost four years of observing the cosmos, the Herschel Space Observatory traced out the presence of water. With its unprecedented sensitivity and spectral resolution at key wavelengths, Herschel revealed this crucial ...

Recommended for you

The material that obscures supermassive black holes

September 26, 2017

Cristina Ramos Almeida, researcher at the IAC, and Claudio Ricci, from the Institute of Astronomy of the Universidad Católica de Chile, have published a review in Nature Astronomy on the material that obscures active galactic ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.