REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 6, 2003 — Professional and amateur astronomers alike will soon be able to access one of the Web’s largest catalogs of astronomical images and information — a landmark scientific resource that was built with Microsoft®
This month the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) SkyServer ( http://skyserver.sdss.org/ ) will release a new set of data, offering public access and advanced tools for searching and manipulating images of more than 80 million stars and galaxies — four times as many objects as there are books in the Library of Congress. This “Yellow Pages” of the northern celestial sphere provides public access to the first release of data from the SDSS. The more than 800 GB of data on astronomical objects includes over 3 billion rows of data.
“SkyServer is a great example of how Microsoft technology is helping put information at astronomers’ fingertips, enabling them to work in new and exciting ways,” said Jim Gray, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft and one of SkyServer’s developers. “Astronomers can now ask complex questions and find the answers almost instantly — and do this from around the world.”
Microsoft .NET Technologies Enhance SkyServer
The SDSS is a collaborative effort by the Astrophysical Research Consortium, a group of 13 public and private organizations working to create the most complete map of the skies visible from the Northern Hemisphere. Data are generated via telescopes at Apache Point Observatory and processed at Fermilab, with code developed at a variety of member institutions. The main public access to the survey is enabled via a 3.5 billion-record Microsoft SQL Server (TM) database, which has been extended with a spatial data library invented by astronomers at The Johns Hopkins University. Using Microsoft Visual Studio®
and the .NET Framework, the researchers built a highly interactive Web server that allows visitors to perform advanced searches and to manipulate and reuse images in the archive.
Since the early data release in 2001, SkyServer has attracted more than 1 million visitors and served more than 15 million Web hits. In addition to its search and data-manipulation features, the site offers more than 150 hours of online instructional content for students.
Microsoft SQL Server Streamlines Searches on and Maintenance of SDSS Database
SQL Server completes most data queries of the SDSS data in a matter of seconds, and all but the most complex searches in less than a minute; this is a fraction of the time it takes astronomers to search using other automated methods.
The use of SQL Server also resulted in significant time savings in terms of building and maintaining the database. SDSS researchers loaded the first version of the SDSS data catalogs into the SQL Server database in a few hours, compared with the several days it would have taken using a previous database system. The sorting, manipulating and filtering of data that used to take SDSS researchers hours or days can now be done in a matter of seconds.
“The speed and ease of use of SQL Server makes it possible for almost anyone to perform advanced searches on a massive online database,” said Ani Thakar of SDSS. “Just as importantly, the stability and easy maintenance of SQL Server is vital for researchers as we add more data to SkyServer and our other online resources.”
Researchers around the world are replicating SkyServer, using a template of its SQL Server database to transfer, maintain and link their own astronomical data online. “Like a lot of astronomers, we didn’t have any experience using databases and couldn’t afford to hire an administrator. Ease of use and manageability were major issues,” said research astronomer Bob Mann of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “We have been extremely impressed with SQL Server. It will greatly improve the way that we do our astronomy.”
Web Services Underlie Worldwide Telescope Prototype
Another project built with Microsoft technology offers astronomers the first and most geographically distributed prototype for what may soon become a worldwide federation of astronomical databases, or a virtual observatory.
The SkyQuery Web portal ( http://skyquery.net/ ) uses .NET Web Services to federate SkyServer data with three other astronomical archives on two continents. These services enable SkyQuery users to quickly search and cross-match information of astronomical data spread across the four data archives.
“With so much information in so many databases around the world, we cannot move all the data to where the analysis is being done; rather, we need to bring the analysis to the data by dividing the computation up among the archives,” said Alex Szalay, a Johns Hopkins University professor who developed SkyQuery. He also serves as principal investigator for the National Virtual Observatory. “We now can handle all this data and put it to maximum use to begin to answer some of science’s most complex astronomical questions.”
The SkyQuery prototype is evolving rapidly as scientists use it. “Since the astronomy community uses a variety of technologies, it is essential that SkyQuery interoperate with UNIX and Windows®
systems,” Gray said. “By using .NET Web Services, data can be shared and accessed from any platform.”
About Microsoft Research
Founded in 1991, Microsoft Research is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. Its goal is to develop new technologies that simplify and enhance the user’s computing experience, reduce the cost of writing and maintaining software, and facilitate the creation of new types of software. Microsoft Research employs more than 700 people, focusing on more than 55 areas of computing. Researchers in five labs on three continents collaborate with leading academic, government and industry researchers to simplify and enhance technology in such areas as speech recognition, user-interface research, programming tools and methodologies, operating systems and networking, graphics, natural language processing, and mathematical sciences. More information can be found at http://www.research.microsoft.com/.
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