ASVO: The Sky’s The Limit

ASVO: The Sky’s The Limit
June 20, 2016 Karen Mecoles

“Creating a mock catalogue of galaxies might have previously taken months, or even years to develop, but with TOA it just a few minutes,”

– Associate Professor Darren Croton

Investigating how galaxies form and the larger properties of the Universe from your comfort of your desktop computer is no longer the stuff of science fiction, it’s happening right here, right now in a capital city near you.

To gain maximum scientific benefit from the new telescopes and facilities going online every day, to produce data in volumes never previously experienced in Australian astronomy, a federation of datasets from all types of astronomical facilities in Australia was needed.

After consultation with the Australian astronomy community, two Australian astronomical facilities were chosen to form the first pillar of the All-Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO): The SkyMapper node based at the Australian National University’s (ANU) Siding Spring Observatory; and the Theoretical Astrophysical Observatory (TAO).

Under the ASVO each facility has assisted in creating hardware, tools and services for the virtual lab, bringing together data from radio telescopes, optical telescopes and supercomputers, covering all parts of the southern sky.

The ASVO also provides a direct and vital link between the theoretical and observational aspects of data collection and analysis, enabling federated data access through the provision of International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA) compliant services and data access mechanisms.

Dr Yeshe Fenner, Executive Officer 
Astronomy Australia Ltd, says the ASVO project is the first step towards building a federated network of datasets, from all types of astronomical facilities in Australia.

“Optical data from the Southern Sky Survey, obtained using the SkyMapper telescope at ANU’s Siding Spring Observatory comprises the most detailed and sensitive digitised map of the southern sky at optical wavelengths,” Dr Fenner said.

“This has provided researchers with an opportunity to test the SkyMapper Test Data Release, and preview the characteristics and data access protocols for the SkyMapper Node, with an expected release of fully calibrated data in November 2015.

“The Theoretical Astrophysical Observatory (TAO), developed at Swinburne and launched in March 2014, houses a growing ensemble of theory data sets and galaxy formation models, with tools to map simulated data onto an observer’s viewpoint, and apply custom telescope simulators.”

TAO project scientist and Associate Professor at Swinburne University’s Darren Croton said that TAO draws on the power of Swinburne’s gSTAR GPU supercomputer to allow astronomers to simulate the Universe through a wide range of telescopes.

“TAO makes it easy and efficient for any astronomer to create these virtual universes,” Associate Professor Croton said. “It’s the culmination of years of effort, and its now at the fingertips of scientists around the world.”

“It also allows researchers to take the data from massive cosmological simulations and map it onto an observer’s viewpoint, to test theories of how galaxies and stars form and evolve,” he continued. “Creating a mock catalogue of galaxies might have previously taken months, or even years to develop, but with TAO it takes just a few minutes.”

Swinburne University worked with eResearch agency Intersect, to design the web interface for TAO with simplicity and user-friendliness in mind.

“It was important for us to create a service that could be used by any astronomer, regardless of their area of expertise,” Associate Professor Croton said. “By providing an accessible interface we’re accelerating the pace of science and boosting the chance of breakthroughs”.

Keeping up with technology and a rapidly changing research environment is also important.

“As new survey telescopes and instruments become available, they can be modelled within TAO to maintain an up-to-date set of observatories.” Associate Professor Croton said. “TAO could be especially useful for comparing theoretical predictions against observations coming from next-generation survey telescopes, like the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia, and the SkyMapper Telescope run by the Australian National University (ANU).”

“These will cover large chunks of the sky and peer back into the early stages of the Universe, and will be tasked with answering some of the most fundamental questions known to humankind.”

Dr Alan Duffy, an astrophysicist using supercomputer simulations to understand how galaxies form is based at the Centre for Astrophysics and Computing at Swinburne University, has successfully used TAO in his studies.

“Using TAO I was able to gain access to some of the most advanced simulations of our Universe ever created, ran on the biggest supercomputers in the world, and all tailored precisely to the expected performance of ASKAP, all on my laptop,” Dr Duffy said.

“In other words, I could ask in a user-friendly webpage for the exact predicted survey that ASKAP will soon undertake, without ever needing access to expensive supercomputer or bespoke simulation code.”

The ASVO is a partnership between Astronomy Australia Ltd, Swinburne University of Technology, The Australian National University, the National Computational Infrastructure, and Intersect Australia Ltd. ASVO is also supported by: the Australian Government, through the Education Investment Fund; the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS); and Nectar.

For more information about the All-Sky Virtual Observatory, go to: