The 'Virtual Universe' Will Be Full of Discoveries

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Being an astronomer in the year 2030 will be notably different than it is today. Yes, scientists will still be pondering, among other mysteries, the evolving universe, life on other worlds, and the nature of dark energy.

But how they explore the heavens is already changing because of a ballooning archive of everything in the universe that has ever been looked at. In addition, amateur astronomers are becoming more heavily involved than ever because of the “democratization” of space via huge publically accessible astronomical databases.

The consequences are that we are on the cusp of a knowledge explosion in astronomy where discoveries will be expanding at an unprecedented rate across to globe. Our knowledge of the universe is becoming, well, inflationary.

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This is only partly driven by the fact that we are riding an exponential curve of increasing telescope size and huge ultra-sensitive detectors. But, much more importantly, vast amounts of observational data are being harvested and archived at a much faster rate than astronomers have the time for analysis.

The result will be a new breed of “office chair astronomer” who trolls a “virtual universe” in globally interconnected online databases. This Virtual Astronomical Observatory is now under development by a consortium of federal science agencies and universities. Nations around the world are following suit under the collective banner of the Virtual Observatory.

In 2030 a typical day for an astronomer on a university campus will have her start work by looking at a list of science papers that have been intelligently selected by a software tool that surfed the Internet overnight. She clicks on an object in an online science paper and the Virtual Observatory database delivers views in X-ray, visible light, and infrared and radio observations. She queries the archive to do an intelligent search to pull up information relevant to the questions the she asking about the object.

She never goes to a mountaintop observatory to do follow-up observations of the object. Instead this is all carried out autonomously following acceptance of her observing proposal. Automatically processed and calibrated observations are quickly delivered for high-level analysis after the observation. This online pipeline processing of data is a procedure pioneered on the Hubble Space Telescope mission, which has amassed 50 terabytes of data covering one million observations to date.

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Her observation goes into the Virtual Observatory archive after a brief proprietary period. Her unrefereed science results are soon published online. Peers and lay reader comment on the results and they ripple through social media. Her formally accepted paper is next published freely in an open-access online journal. Students in impoverished third-world universities have the same access to her results as a Harvard astrophysicist does.

Big Bang of Discovery

A new generation of powerful telescopes will feed a “fire-hose” of results into the Virtual Observatory. Already planned are 30 to 40-meter optical-infrared telescopes, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) using 66 telescopes working in unison. The SKA will alone catalog 70 million galaxies at radio wavelengths. The big telescopes are pushing sensitivity, large space based observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) add wide multiwavelength coverage, precision perfect resolution, and extraordinary depth for pinpointing faint objects.

A new frontier of discovery space is coming down the track will be “movies” of the sky made with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), as well and research underway with the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). These unprecedented nightly all-sky surveys will feed the Virtual Observatory with petabytes of data daily.  Viewing different transient phenomena in the sky will no doubt lead to unimagined discoveries. 

ANALYSIS: The Universe in High Definition

Armchair astronomers will focus on complex and innovative queries of the Virtual Observatory to automatically search and extract precise sets of observations made by all these telescopes. Researchers will make new discoveries purely by being able to cleverly combine data from different wavelengths, spectra, and transient changes in space.

Beyond the community of several thousand professional astronomers, many thousand more of inquiring minds in the public will be able to troll the databases too. A prototype for this is the Galaxy Zoo project where people do galaxy classification from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

In 2007 by Dutch high-school teacher Hanny van Arkel, while participating in the online Galaxy Zoo project discovered an uncanny green blob near an active galaxy. Called Hanny’s Voorwerp (“Hanny’s Object” in Dutch) it appears to have been caught in a black hole beam and energized to glow in oxygen.

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Given this game-changer in the way astronomers explore the universe, “We can imagine that astronomical productivity will be higher than at any previous time,” said Ray Norris (CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science in Australia) who presented the scenarios discussed here at the most recent assembly of the International Astronomical Union.

A true golden age of astronomy is dawning thanks to a convergence of data mining and communications technologies, not to mention computer designed and operated telescopes.

Discoveries are already waiting inside the mother lode of data archived already.

Image credits: ESO, NSF, NASA