Efficient use of scientific archives and associated Information Technology (IT) systems is of critical importance in order to realize the full scientific potential of extant and new astronomical facilities. The OPTICON partners agreed to coordinate their efforts towards the realization of an Astrophysical Virtual Observatory for the whole of European astronomy. An Astrophysical Virtual Observatory will allow all European astronomers to partake in, and utilize, the technological advances of the future internet (GRID) initiatives that have already been recognized by the EC as critical to the development of the European Research Area. Similar efforts are under way in the US, in response to an NSF decadal report on Astronomy, and in other subjects.

Astrovirtel. an ESO/ ESA proposal including the Space Telescope-European Co-ordinating Facility, had been supported by the EC Framework Programme to provide enhanced access to the data from HST, the VLT, and some La Silla telescopes at the level of 300k Euros for 3 years. This will support travel and subsistence, dedicated data acquisition support and associated operational costs.

Building on this experience, OPTICON established three working groups to investigate practical implemention of a Virtual Observatory; one to focus on the scientific utilization of archives, chaired by Piero Benvenuti; one on the interoperability of archives, chaired by Francoise Genova; and one on the necessary IT infrastructure for the exploitation of an ever increasing astronomical data flood, chaired by Peter Quinn. A meeting of the OPTICON partner organisations in Strasbourg on 13 October 2000 made explicit recommendations to these working groups to prepare, by early 2001, proposals to the 5th Framework RTD program for developments leading to the Astrophysical Virtual Observatory , for the benefit of the entire EC-wide astronomical community.

Several workshops utilizing EC funds were organized by the three OPTICON working groups in 2000 to clarify requirements and make specific recommendations for future proposals for EC funding in critical technology and human resources areas. These workshops were open to all the community, and explicitely invited every major relevant initiative and group in the EC.

Following upon the OPTICON recommendations for co-ordinated community effort in bringing about an Astrophysical Virtual Observatory in Europe, two co-ordinated RTD proposals were submitted to, and funded by, the EU. The first is a proposal for a Phase-A work program for the Astrophysical Virtual Observatory (AVO) co-ordinated by the chairpersons of the three associated OPTICON working groups. This proposal focuses on the working group themes of scientific requirements, interoperability and GRID technology for the AVO. Intended as a Phase-A program, the AVO proposal will, by studies, testbed deployments and prototype operations, define a full AVO implementation program for Europe by the end of 2003. The AVO proposal will coordinate its work with similar initiatives in the US, Canada and Australia.

These OPTICON-sponsored initiatives are now funded, and in full operation. Progress can be monitored at the various virtual observatory WWW sites listed below. Those interested are welcome to contact the working group chairmen.

  • NOAO and the National Virtual Observatory.

  • The Australian Virtual Observatory

  • Astrogrid the UK astronomy data grid. Click here for a paper to PPARC on the subject.

  • Microsoft Research Article on Virtual Observatories

  • Digital Sky Virtual Observatory prototype at NASA JPL.

  • SKYVIEW at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center

  • The Virtual Observatory Forum, a discussion site.

  • The National Virtual Observatory

    Links to past conferences on Virtual Observatories.

  • http://astro.u-strasbg.fr/~ccma/vo/Virtual Observatory Exploratory Workshop, 20-21 September 1999.

  • Virtual Observatories of the Future Caltech, June 13 - 16, 2000

    For more about OPTICON and the Virtual Observatory read this paper presented at the ESO meeting on "Mining the Sky".

    John Keith Davies
    Astronomy Technology Centre, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh, EH9 3HJ.
    tel: 0131 668 8348/ fax: 0131 668 8407

    Return to OPTICON home page.


    Last update, 14 May 2002