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Science & Exploration

N° 73–2001: Exploring the Digital Universe with Europe's Astrophysical Virtual Observatory

5 December 2001

A new European initiative called the Astrophysical Virtual Observatory (AVO) is being launched to provide astronomers with breathtaking potential for new discoveries. It will enable them to seamlessly combine data from both ground- and space-based telescopes making observations of the Universe across the whole range of wavelengths - from high-energy gamma rays through the ultraviolet and visible to the infrared and radio.


N° 73-2001 - Paris, 5 December 2001 The aim of AVO is to give astronomers instant access to the vast databanks now being built up by the world's observatories and forming what is in effect a "digital sky".

Using AVO astronomers will be able, for example, to retrieve the elusive traces of the passage of an asteroid as it passes the Earth and so predict its future path and perhaps warn of a possible impact. When a giant star comes to the end of its life in a cataclysmic explosion called a supernova, they will be able to access the digital sky and pinpoint the star shortly before it exploded, adding invaluable data to the study of the evolution of stars.

Modern observatories observe the sky continuously and data accumulates remorselessly in the digital archives. The growth rate is impressive and many hundreds of terabytes of data -corresponding to many thousands of billions of pixels - are already available to scientists. The real sky is being digitally reconstructed in the databanks. The volume and complexity of data and information available to astronomers are overwhelming.

Hence the problem of how astronomers can possibly manage, distribute and analyse this great wealth of data. The Astrophysical Virtual Observatory will enable them to meet the challenge and "put the Universe online".

AVO is a three-year project, funded by the European Commission under its Research and Technological Development (RTD) scheme, to design and implement a virtual observatory for the European astronomical community. The Commission has awarded a contract valued at EUR 4m for the project, starting on 15 November. AVO will provide software tools to enable astronomers to access the multi-wavelength data archives over the Internet and so give them the capability to resolve fundamental questions about the Universe by probing the digital sky. Equivalent searches of the "real" sky would, in comparison, both be prohibitively costly and take far too long.

Towards a Global Virtual Observatory

The need for virtual observatories has also been recognised by other astronomical communities. The National Science Foundation in the USA has awarded $10 million (EUR 11.4 m) for a National Virtual Observatory (NVO). The AVO project team has formed a close alliance with the NVO and both teams have representatives on each other's committees. It is clear to the NVO and AVO communities that there are no intrinsic boundaries to the virtual observatory concept and that all astronomers should be working towards a truly global virtual observatory that will enable new science to be carried out on the wealth of astronomical data held in the growing number of first-class international astronomical archives.

AVO involves six partner organisations led by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Munich. The other partner organisations are the European Space Agency (ESA), the United Kingdom's ASTROGRID consortium, the CNRS-supported Centre de Données Astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS) at the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, the CNRS-supported TERAPIX astronomical data centre at the Institut d'Astrophysique in Paris and the Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester.

Note for editors

A 13-minute background video (broadcast PAL) is available from ESO PR and the Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre (addresses below). It will also be transmitted via satellite on Wednesday 12 December 2001 from 12:00 to 12:15 CET on the ESA TV Service:

AVO Contacts

Peter Quinn

European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany

Phone: +49-89-3200-6509 (089 in Germany)


Piero Benvenuti


Space Telescope-European Coordinating Facility, Garching, Germany

Phone: +49-89-3200-6290 (089 in Germany)


Andy Lawrence

Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom (on behalf of The ASTROGRID Consortium: Belfast, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leicester, Manchester, London, Rutherford Laboratory)

Phone: +44-131-668-8346/56 (0131 in the United Kingdom)


Françoise Genova

Centre de Données Astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS), France

Phone: +33-390-24-24-76


Yannick Mellier

CNRS, Delegation Paris A (CNRSDR01-Terapix)/IAP/INSU, France

Phone: +33-1-44-32-81-40


Phil Diamond

University of Manchester/Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom

Phone: +44-147-757-2625 (0147 in the United Kingdom)


PR Contacts

Richard West

ESO PR, Garching, Germany

Phone: +49-(0)89-3200-6276 (089 within Germany)


Lars Lindberg Christensen

ESA/ Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre, Garching, Germany

Phone: +49-89-3200-6306 (089 in Germany)

Cellular (24 hr): +49-173-38-72-621 (0173 in Germany)


Ray Footman

The ASTROGRID Consortium/University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Phone: +44-131-650-2249 (0131 in United Kingdom)


Philippe Chauvin


CNRS, Delegation Paris A, IAP/INSU, France

Phone: +33 1 44 96 43 36


Agnes Villanueva

University of Strasbourg

Phone: +33 3 90 24 11 35


Ian Morrison

University of Manchester/Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom

Phone: +44 1477 572610



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