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Space Science

National Virtual Observatory 66

scubacuda writes "According to this Technology Review article, U.S. astronomers (compliments of a $10M grant from the National Science Foundation) are building a National Virtual Observatory to make accessible terabytes of astrononomical data to a web browser. One interesting challenge is how the scientists are going to query so many *different* distributed databases (which they're leaving in their respective places to avoiding clogging network bandwidth)."
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National Virtual Observatory

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  • virtually (Score:3, Funny)

    by LittleBigScript ( 618162 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:29AM (#4787154) Homepage Journal
    I virtually built a tetrabyte virtual observatory, but something good was on tv.

    "Dr. Quinn Medicine woman...Is there anything she can't do?"-Homer
  • by Rhinobird ( 151521 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:34AM (#4787161) Homepage
    No, no. It should be renamed the National Space Wallpaper Archive.
  • "History has shown us that the greatest leaps forward have occurred not when you observe the universe through just one window, but when you compare the views of the universe obtained through different windows," says Ray

    Thanks Ray for that endoursment of that (in)famous MS product.
    This is offtopic, please mod it down.
  • Web Browser (Score:5, Funny)

    by LittleBigScript ( 618162 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:49AM (#4787186) Homepage Journal
    I tried to look at the universe through my web browser but all I saw was this prompt that told me I should update my web browser to the latest version in order to see the universe.
    So will the universe be viewable in the next point release or is it several years away.

    Is it possible to look at the universe with, say, lynx?
    Or if that is not possible with javascript turned off?
    • by Cheese Cracker ( 615402 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:58AM (#4787201)
      Is it possible to look at the universe with, say, lynx?

      Lynx users have to look out their window at night to see the universe. ;)
      • you mean look outside of their x-window, right?
      • Re:Web Browser (Score:5, Informative)

        by ghostlibrary ( 450718 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @10:09AM (#4787301) Homepage Journal
        Is it possible to look at the universe with, say, lynx?

        I know this was a joke, but that's actually a topic debated by webmasters at GSFC. In theory, all NASA web pages should be accessible, e.g. all browsers, readers for the blind, etc.

        For images, this means descriptive image 'alt' tags. For links, it means including a link description. But what to do for data?

        It's kinda subtle. The best answer is 'give data informative tags that can be domain-specific.' "Image 5b" is useless, saying "DI Peg data, X-ray wavelengths, reduced, FITS format" is good but tedious for whomever makes the page, giving a spec like 'ASCA dataset1, DI Peg, FITS, reduced' is something that could likely be automatically generated and fits the bill.

        But the issue of folks using non-visual browsers is pretty real. Besides lynx and browsers for the blind, there's also data hunting scripts and programs that need to figure out what is on a page, and so it's a problem worth solving.
  • by otisaardvark ( 587437 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:50AM (#4787188)
    IMHO this is an incredible phenomenon. For the first time in history, we have been able to access a huge subset of academic literature and data for the (fairly minimal) cost of an internet connection... Many university lecture course notes are completely available on the WWW. The internet could prove to be the single factor which contributes greatest towards equality of educational opportunity for all around the world. Will education will lead to (economic) salvation?
    • by Anonymous Coward
      The internet could prove to be the single factor which contributes greatest towards equality of educational opportunity for all around the world.

      Not likely. Only about 5% of the worlds population have internet access, maybe a tad more.
      • You said:

        ">>The internet could prove to be the single factor which contributes greatest towards equality of educational opportunity for all around the world.

        >Not likely. Only about 5% of the worlds population have internet access, maybe a tad more."

        Putting that into perspective, how many people need to do serious research on Astronomy in that depth. It is a fairly abstract field that is well entrenched into academia.

        Also put that 5% number into perspective for people who need to do serious research into Astronomy; of them, how many have access (at least part time) to the Internet? It's probably up there near 100%

        While not a huge educational opportunity for everyone on the planet, we are looking at a serious contribution to the field.

  • by JayBonci ( 92015 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @08:57AM (#4787196)
    From what the article reads, it seems to be a very ambitious and interesting project. Very rarely do you see people trying to get together to spread information out to the web in such a fashion. The major problem in my (and I can imagine in their) mind is of format? How can you accomodate the mythical layman's and his or her inherent lack of skill, and still have it be available for advanced researchers to make use of.

    It seems that there is simply going to be a huge amount of data-cross referenced and collated. From the second page of the article, it seems to include pictoral data. I also hear talk of XML being thrown around, which is a good start, but there's a lot that goes into that transition. Are they looking to set the layman bar at "your novice astronomer", "the third grade science report", or "grad student". Where is this information really being targeted at the sub-obscure level.

    While I don't want to trivialize their massive IT effort, it seems that a lot of this is going to come down to the end user of the data. Their sample study [caltech.edu] using this information isn't trivial stuff, and does seem to set the aforementioned bar at somewhere in the undergrad-graduate level. Perhaps that is the nature of the data (I'm not that familiar with it). There's an XML schema, some request examples, and other framework stuff already in place to view by potential client writers.

    I'm glad to see XML being done the right way (by collaboration with its end users), and those pictures /numbers being available for public research. Maybe someone will throw together an inverse Terraserver [msn.com] or something with Whiz-bang true-layman appeal. Until then, the geeks bow at the effort, because man, space is BIG.

    Anyone closer to the project know of any simplification efforts?

    • Take a look at SkyServer [sdss.org] for an "inverse TerraServer". It was co-developed by Jim Gray of Microsoft Research, one of the developers of the inverse TerraServer. In fact, that is how he describes the new project :-)
    • IAAABDTTALA (I Am An Astronomer, But Don't Take This As Legal Advice), and I doubt that they are actually aiming this at the layman. What they are doing is opening it up to everyone, and everyone is free to use it and learn how to use it, but really, you expect mainly professional astronomers to use it.

      There are lots of databases that follows this philosophy allready, the NASA Astrophysics Data System [harvard.edu], the Digitized Sky Survey [stsci.edu], not to speak of the larger arxiv.org [arxiv.org]. You can all grab whatever you like from there.

      That being said, there are a number of amateur astronomers who are extremely dedicated and are willing to obtain the skill needed to use such a system, even if there is a tough learning curve. These can be considered "laymen", but they are actually very good at what they do. That's the kind of "laymen" you would expect to use it. Not Joe Sixpack, but the people who are dedicated enough to learn how to use it.

      • I think that a good web interface that anybody could use, would be,is a set of virtual reality glasses (voice controlled and response) that anybody could use simply by looking (in any direction, up, down, sideways) and seeing the universe as it is , then asking the glasses to zoom-in, zoom out, and get visual feedback (in the glasses display) what you are looking at. You wouldn't need a telescope to look thru, simply put on the glasses. The system would need a good interface, perhaps use a version of the CYC intelligent databas program (askjeeves search engine uses it, you can ask it questions in english..). A simple astronomical interface would introduce a lot of people to the astronomical universe around them..
        • Sure, many cool things you can do. But keep in mind that the field-of-view of major optical telescopes is very small, about the size of the ball of your pen when held at an arm-length's distance. So, large parts of the sky is never imaged with this kind of telescopes. You have surveys, but they don't go as "deep", you don't see any galaxies for example. Other objects are monitored extensively, there are terrabytes of data for some objects.

          Yeah, there are really nice applications you can develop on the basis on all these data, but someone's gotta do it, and I doubt scientists will do it, there are too many challenging projects to work on. However, extending KStars is a good idea! :-)

    • by ghostlibrary ( 450718 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:57AM (#4787281) Homepage Journal
      Most/all astronomical data is in FITS format. That which isn't, often gets FITSized when put into archives.

      All you really need to know about FITS is: it is well specified, there are lots of tools for it, and it has an ASCII (human-readable) header describing the data, followed by specifically formatted binary data.

      Also, since most data archives are large, single location repositories (e.g. CHANDRA data), and many data archives are already combined with other sets (e.g. HEASARC.gsfc.nasa.gov), there's a relatively small number of sites providing data (relative to, say, the number of sourceforge projects).

      The astronomy community has been providing its data via the web for years now, usually localized by wavelength (e.g. radio archive in 1 place, X-ray data in another). The Virtual Observatory is just a layer on top to simplify access.

      And for NASA data, it always goes public 1 year after the observation, so this isn't a new concept, just a better way to get at the data.
    • I'm an astronomer involved in the Virtual Observatory project so I can give a few opinions which may or may not reflect the views of the rest of the (immense) collaboration. There's a huge amount of public astronomy data out there. The trick is to make it both easy to get at and easy to handle once you've got it. Right now it's a challenge for PhD astronomers never mind the general public.

      The first priority of the Virtual Observatory (VO) is making it easier for professional astronomers to combine data from different sources, but we're also committed to involving the amateur astronomy and general public - that will involve special portals and eventually special software tools. I would caution that the whole project is at a very early stage, but I'm optimistic that a few years from now you'll see some nifty tools to let you explore the universe from your web browser (I don't know about support for lynx as one person asked about, personally I prefer wget...). Note that most astronomy analysis software is open source, and most is *only* available for Unix/Linux, so many /. readers will have a leg up on the world if they really want to do stuff with our data. But you don't need fancy software to play with the pretty pictures we make.

      There are already a lot of good tools around - someone mentioned Tom McGlynn's Skyview, and he's part of the VO team (perhaps a better word would be Collective, since we are trying to assimilate everyone...) and the VO will provide middleware to make it easier for those public tools to interoperate and get their hands on more data. So it'll be a real help to people writing those kinds of service (Skyview, NED, Aladin, etc.), more directly I think than to most end users at least in the short term.

      To address your specific question of format, the current idea seems to be XML descriptive wrappers paired with FITS binary data for most applications. But there are usually GIF/JPEG type preview images around, and the image viewer SAO DS9 [harvard.edu]for FITS data has been ported to PCs and Macs and is pretty easy to use. In the meantime, you may want to check out NED Level 5 [caltech.edu] for an excellent overview site on extragalactic astronomy.

      - Jonathan

  • I would guess that a lot of this data is collected for specific purposes and has already been analyzed in detail by the people who collected it.

    That leaves me wondering: other than satisfying curiosity, will people actually do anything useful with this data? Will this just include "images" or will there actually be a lot of spectrographic data and other measurements? What would they be looking for? What might they find?

    Overall, I guess I just don't see yet that this is a useful use of scarce research funds.

    • by ghostlibrary ( 450718 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @10:06AM (#4787293) Homepage Journal
      A lot of astronomy data is looked at by its principal investigator (PI) for something specific. Really, data has 5 'lives'.

      1) The original proposal by the PI, e.g. 'looking for cornonal emissions from DI Peg, an Algol-type system'. Sort of the pass/fail of the research world.

      2) Survey. Someone decides to do a survey study among existing data, e.g. "Light curves from all Algol-type systems".

      3) Unexpected. Someone finds a new thing to look for, sometimes due to better theoretical understanding. "Coronal sources should be iron-enhanced, so let's reanalyze DI Peg, specifically looking for iron lines."

      4) Data-mining. Searching an archive for a given property. "Looking for all sources with X-ray emission above a given threshold... hey, DI Peg matched!"

      5) Grad students. Doing their thesis on a topic, use archival data to support. "Dissertation on coronal systems, using data from DI Peg and others".

      So data is often used beyond its initial acquisition!
      • by KjetilK ( 186133 ) <kjetil@@@kjernsmo...net> on Sunday December 01, 2002 @02:01PM (#4788148) Homepage Journal

        Grad students. Doing their thesis on a topic, use archival data to support.

        To elaborate on that, at my (old) institute [astro.uio.no] people are discouraged from disembarking on a thesis that requires them to obtain original data, it is too risky.

        To get observation time, you would have to write a really good proposal; most major observatories have at least three times as many applications as they have time for. If you're lucky enough to get time, it is maybe half a year into the future, and you're getting three nights to complete everything.

        You spend that time preparing everything, just to come down to the observatory, and you're in the fog for three nights! Tough luck, you've spent all that time preparing, and you're now one year behind schedule...

        I did three observation runs during my thesis work , two as Observing Astronomer (who is kind of the guy deciding what to look at when and for how long when at the telescope, the PI is the guy who decides what the project is about). My own thesis was purely theoretical, and I was happy about that, because we experienced having a total of ten nights (it is rare to get so many nights, it was a world-wide collaboration), and we got one full night + 3 hours on two other nights worth of observation. It's extremely frustrating to sit there getting nothing because of humidity, I can tell you, and if that had been a part of my thesis, I'd be in deep trouble.

    • Just as an example...each data set from HST gets downloaded and used more than 5 times by different projects. Much of this is to suppliment other observations or to plan for future observations. And with the growth of imaging CCDs on HST, the number of objects in a single frame grows as well, leading to a lot of parallel usage of a single image. In the end, I doubt that every use for every frame within a 7+ terabyte archive gets used. The VO will help with this.

      As another example, people still use the plate archives at Harvard. Many of these plates are over 100 years old. Astronomical data gets reused.
  • by Frederique Coq-Bloqu ( 628621 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:14AM (#4787220) Journal
    the SkyView Virtual Observatory [nasa.gov] run by NASA, though I suspect this National one will be far more sophisticated. Cheers.
  • by abirdman ( 557790 ) <abirdman@maine.rr . c om> on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:17AM (#4787225) Homepage Journal
    "an electronic catalog of images in multiple wavelengths spanning half the northern sky--100 million celestial objects in all, encoded in four databases...and combine it with other, smaller U.S. and international surveys, including some maintained by the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and European Union. "
    "...optical telescope images and gamma ray, infrared, radio, ultraviolet, and X-ray snapshots of the heavens"
    Now, that's a lot of data, in a lot of formats. Given the economics of software development and data transformation and conversion, I wonder what they'll be able to accomplish with $10M, beyond some XML data format definitions and some shiny new infrastructure (that gigabit network interface isn't cheap).

    All in all, though, it seems like a good use for those tax dollars. The "Google" of astronomy research is an attractive idea, and I know we'll get some great new acronyms in the deal.
  • Efforts like this are very good. It is good to see government agencies marry the cheap delivery of the internet to their huge datasets.

    And, appropriately enough, the text on their page is quite ... spacey.

    The Army Understands [slashdot.org]
  • by bunyip ( 17018 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:23AM (#4787237)
    Jim Gray, at Microsoft Research, has coauthored papers on this topic with at least one of the researchers mentioned in the article. There is some really good reading at:

    http://research.microsoft.com/~Gray/JimGrayHomeP ag eSummary.htm

  • Solution (Score:2, Informative)

    by SpitFU ( 617828 )
    I don't know how much data they are actually talking about, but I can offer up a solution.

    Some of you might disagree. I've run into a scalable piece of software which will interogate all their information sources irregardless of their storage format, index them, and still leave them all in their respective locations.

    Autonomy Inc. [autonomy.com] has a product called DRE AXE which is also XML compliant. They have a pretty simple API to work with and have even seen it work on Java, PHP, and Perl. The query engine is extremely fast, and supports laymans terms. The engine supports both Boolean as well as natural language queries. Check them out, i've been administering their products for about 2 to 3 years now.

    Ok, Ok, I'm giving them a plug, but hey their product works well.
  • by mraymer ( 516227 ) <mraymer&centurytel,net> on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:43AM (#4787262) Homepage Journal
    While this sounds like a cool idea (terabytes?!), there is already a lot of astronomical data out there in the APOD archives [nasa.gov], which is the largest collection of annotated astronomy pics on the Web.

    Also, I have to mention Celestia [shatters.net], a great Space Simulator, similar to OpenUniverse.

    In closing, let me say that I think people should take more of an interest in astronomy, as the understanding and exploration of space is one of the most important goals humans should have if they wish to survive longer 500 million years or so.

    • APOD is a collection of nice images. This project is geared towards professional astronomers, and is a repository for astronomical data, which is quite different than the jpeg's you'll find on APOD.

    • mraymer, I have to thank you for the Celestia link! I hadn't heard of it. I have a 6-year-old daughter who is just nuts about astronomy (and all things in general). This will be a brilliant addition to our KStars explorations.

      One of the things I immediately noticed was how homing in on Sol and then going to the Earth will make it simple to teach her how the seasons work. The field of view offered here is invaluable for helping young minds grasp such somewhat abstract concepts.

  • Virtual astronomy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by xdesk ( 550151 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @09:51AM (#4787276)
    What about a peer-to-peer network of amateur astronomers running highly-computerized telescopes and a special P2P program ? If the program is really good it will be able to discover automatically interesting things - like potential objects that might collide with the Earth !!! A project like this (even one slightly subsidized by public funds) can certainly be VERY cost-effective - and unlike much bigger projects can be started rather quick. And if you think that ever since the Apollo program the budget for space is smaller and smaller this might actually be the only effective way to avoid the same fate as the dinosaurs!
    • by DirtyJ ( 576100 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @02:03PM (#4788161)
      That's a pretty interesting idea, but I don't think it's applicable to the Virtual Observatory. What is being discussed here is creating a central engine which can seamlessly access multiple large databases which are served out of different locations. These are databases which are frequently all-sky surveys conducted by one group and stored in one central location - not necessarily in small sections on multiple persons' hard drives.

      The P2P idea is interesting in that it could apply to individually collected small data sets. Here's how observational astronomy has traditionally worked:

      Astronomer writes a proposal to do some research using a specific telescope(s)

      Proposal gets accepted after peer review

      Astronomer travels to observatory to spend many of his own nights collecting data

      Astronomer takes the time to reduce and analyze his own data

      Astronomer writes a paper(s) saying, "Hey - look what I did!"

      (Sometimes) astronomer writes a proposal for further funding based on the merits of this work

      This procedure is inefficient in that you sometimes get multiple people who are not working together, doing the same project on different telescopes. If I collect a bunch of data in one part of the sky, try to use it but don't actually get around to finishing and publishing a paper, and then archive it locally, nobody in the world knows that the data exists. So now if someone else wants to do the same project, they go to the telescope and recollect the same data. In other words, there's no central log of who's done what when it comes to individual observing.

      P2P could be useful to remedy this. The problem is that astronomers tend to be very proprietary about their data. Sometimes research and publishing can be very competitive, and you don't want to give the competition an edge when it could mean that they publish a paper on a particular topic before you and reap the rewards, or get funding when you don't. So I think that most astronomers would share their data openly in a P2P network only after they were completely finished using it, and some would never do so.

      The difference with the data sets being accessed by the proposed Virtual Observatory is that the people who create those sets typically get their funding with a stipulation that the data be publically accessible some time after the work is finished. They're not allowed to keep it proprietary even if they'd prefer to do so for competition reasons.

      • Actually, another problem with P2P between individual astronomers that I forgot to mention: Data takes up a lot of space. I've done work using mosaic cameras (where multiple CCDs are butted up together to make a large array) where single images are ~250MB. A single night's observing can produce many GB of data. Most people don't have enough disk space to store all of their data indefinitely. Most of the time, you do your work with it, and then write it to DLT or Exabyte and delete it from the hard drive to make space for the next data that you collect. In this sense, P2P wouldn't work well because most of the data which people have would not be easily accessible from remote locations.
  • One interesting challenge is how the scientists are going to query so many *different* distributed databases (which they're leaving in their respective places to avoiding clogging network bandwidth).

    This is just me, but, wouldn't leaving the databases where they are clog network bandwidth, as opposed to say, having them on one local LAN?

  • some details (Score:4, Informative)

    by niall2 ( 192734 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @12:24PM (#4787677) Homepage
    I am involved somewhat in the development of the Virtual Observatory. There are some details that often get overlooked in articles about the VO. First off, its more than putting data on the web. That we do already (the Hubble Space Telescope archive is a 7+ terrabyte archive that is on the web). The real challenge is to make an infrastructure to allow these archives and terabyte databases to interact with grid computing services. We have been working on this for several months now and are working on some demos of the technology for the January American Astronomical Socieity meeting in Seatle.

    An example of such a VO project is the Galaxy Morphology demo. We take catalogs of a cluster of galaxies from one source, identify those sources with emission form a separate catalog, fetch images of all of those galaxies, and send the images and brightness information to a grid computer service that calculates the morphology of the galaxies, sending this result to the user to visualize in a VO complient piece of software. The user did nothing but pick the cluster and then look at the results. Much more than simply putting data on the web. And once this service is developed, it can simply be put into a web page for others to use and learn from.

    Most of this involves creating simple to use yet potentially powerful interfaces to services. While we are not using true RPCs like SOAP yet, the idea is to create standard interfaces to things like image servers, catalog servers, and the like. With those services, we will extend beyond to data and service discovery. Standard data and metadata formats are also being developed, as are common datamodels, all with the intent that these will make data and service exchange simpler. This all leads to service registries, where many applications will go to discover data and services that could be used for a particular project.

    Jim Grey is involved with the project. He lead the Terraserver project at Microsoft Research. He found that, as he put it, images of the earth are worth money; those of the stars are not. Because of this, he found the research he was doing on distributed data with the terraserver project was running into snags where making money hindered access to the data. This not to be true for astronomical data. Hence he is now looking up rather than down now. There is in development a version of Terraserver for different parts of the VO in the works.

    There will be usage points for people all the way from my mother who loves astronomical wallpaper to the hard core researcher and all points in between. Public outreach is being built in at the ground level, so this is not just for astronomers. Many of these will be web bases interfaces to the VO, but others may be simple toolkits to make your own services. Some could be simple to use to do basic science projects in school, some may be for science fair level projects, and some for people to develop educational web-based lesson plans.

    Yes, 10 million dollars seems small. But its a start. And we are not the only ones working on VO technologies. The Europeans have thier own VO, as does Canada, Russia, India... The divisions are mostly political (each funding agency has its own VO title). The IVO has been establised to act as a stearing body to help us share efforts and make things interoperable from the start.
    • This looks really interesting and I'm looking forward to playing around with it. I was wondering how it compares with other similar-sounding astronomical survey projects that combine existing data such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey [sdss.org]. Is it expected to replace the existing ones?

      • They're not the same sort of beast. SDSS, which is a sky survey, will be one of the many sets of data linked by NVO. So will the digitized version of the original Palomar Sky Survey. As will all the HST archive data. And the Chandra archive data. And the 2 Micron All Sky Survey. Etc.

      • Re:some questions (Score:2, Informative)

        by niall2 ( 192734 )
        The sloan is a major part of the VO as will be the 2-Mass allsky Near Infrared survey [caltech.edu] and many other surveys to come. This is not something that will be limited to a particular mission or archive, but infrastructure to allow interaction between these data and service sources.
  • by Simon Field ( 563434 ) on Sunday December 01, 2002 @01:52PM (#4788107) Homepage

    While the main benefits of the virtual observatory will be to researchers, the $10 million is only the start, and more money will be needed, and the way to get more money is to make it popular with voters.

    There are two examples of indexing large databases for the masses that come to mind. One is Google, and the other is Amazon.

    Google ranks items by how popular they are, based in large part by how many links there are to the web page. Amazon gives you a list of books other customers bought when they bought the book you found in your search.

    For astronomical data and images, something like those approaches could be quite entertaining. I could go to a popularity list to see which images and data everyone else was looking at (a million flies can't be wrong...). But then, like the Internet Movie Database, it would be fun to see other images and data that was most often found in the same papers or web pages as this item. Somewhat like the Science Citation Index (or the Kevin Bacon game).

    Users could also rate the images and data. Then we could have lists such as "people who liked this nebula also liked these HST photos". Images could be grouped by popular use -- "Images most often used as wallpaper", "Images most often used by science magazines", "Data most often used by newspapers", etc.

  • Dilbert (Score:3, Funny)

    by Cyno01 ( 573917 ) <Cyno01@hotmail.com> on Sunday December 01, 2002 @05:02PM (#4788947) Homepage
    Did anyone see that episode fo DIlbert(it was a cartoon for two seasons on UPN) where their satelite crashed so they just started giving nasa pictures that dilbert made on his computer.
    Nasa guy: This starfield looks like it was made with a paint program on a PC.
    Dogbert: You have to admit that in the infinte universe it must look exactly like that somewhere from some angle.
    Nasa Guy:*looks puzzled for a moment* Our budget problems are solved! Can you give us evidence of life too?
    Dogbert: This pictures teeming with life, look right there, that stars blurrier than that one.
    *NASA Guys Rejoice*
  • Why web browser? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Why is this database being built to be accessable through a web browser? Surely custom client software would be a vastly more efficient method of manipulating remote databases?

    Just because the web exists doesn't mean that it should be used for everything, even if it can, especially since this project isn't going to be accessable to the general public. A small custom cross-platform client application would make much more sense depending on the data being accessed - it would probably allow for more efficient automation of searching and repetitive tasks as well by not having a completely dumb client.

    I hope they considered what tasks the end-users will actually be doing with the data and are going to allow them the flexibility to be creative in their manipulation and searches.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford