For the last decade, astronomers worldwide have slowly been bringing together the infrastructure to create a “Virtual Observatory” — uniform access to astronomy data from different telescopes, with different sorts of instruments, taken by different astronomers at different times. Very quickly in the process, astronomers realized that the main problems lay not in the underlying technology, but in creating a set of standards so that it would be easy to set that data up for access and to view and manipulate that data with a common set of tools.
AstroGrid is the UK’s VO project, and they released their software this week at the UK National Astronomy Meeting, just ended at Queen’s University Belfast. (There was an excellent group blog set up for the event, with especially good coverage of the “Town Meeting” on the STFC Funding
Crisis Situation, discussed here and elsewhere ad nauseum before.) You can download the AstroGrid desktop java application, which gives access to data worldwide, and tools to visualize and manipulate that data. Most of the biggest surveys to date are online (SDSS, 2MASS, IPHAS, as well as images from the Hubble Space Telescope), as well as tools for viewing and manipulating images and energy spectra. There’s also an infrastructure for adding more tools, and for manipulating data using the Python language. Getting that infrastructure just right, so it will be accepted and adopted by curmudgeonly and conservative astronomers worldwide, from Europe and America to India, has of course proved the hardest part. If you are a professional astronomer, give AstroGrid a try.