Friday, April 8, 2011

Astronomers call for new help: miners (data miners, that is), 10.15.10

Astronomers are experiencing a new challenge: they simply have too much data. Joshua Bloom of the University of California, Berkeley says that in just the past 30 years, the technology used in astronomy has become so advanced that astronomers have become inundated with data. The cause? Digital photography.

Bloom said in a recent presentation at the California Academy of the Sciences that digital photography has brought about an evolution in the way astronomers work; they now spend more time combing through data that comes pouring in from digital telescopes than they do actually looking at the sky. “The data rates are going to preclude human involvement,” he said. “There’s just too much of the stuff.”

Some astronomers have developed “intelligent algorithms” with which to program their computers, so the computers do much of the work of classifying what they see. A team of astronomers in the UK is using a program called “Galaxy Zoo,” which actually invites the public to help them classify Hubble images. More than 250,000 people have participated in the program to date. Bloom’s team has also been consulting with Google to glean their “search expertise.” Computer scientists are being demanded in astronomy more than ever.

This problem of too much data will only get worse as technology advances, too. For instance, an observatory called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is scheduled to open in the Chilean mountains by about the year 2018. The LSST, Bloom said, will be bringing in one gigabyte of data every two seconds. But, he noted, “It’s a very good thing [to have too much data], it’s just...we’re not used to it.”


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