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Astronomical efforts open new worlds for RIT

A visual-wavelength image of nebula NGC 7027 taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. At the core of this nebula is a dying star that is heating and illuminating its ejected material with intense ultraviolet radiation.

Astronomers are seeing stars on their desktops, thanks to the efforts of RIT imaging scientists.

"RIT's expertise in the broad area of information technology is a key component of the research that is being done in the astronomy community today," says Ian Gatley, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. "Our part in the process is to develop integrated information systems to gather, process and distribute the data to other astronomers, so they can concentrate on the interpretation of the information."

Historically, astronomers had to travel to remote, often harsh, locations to get a good view of the sky. Captain James Cook's first voyage was initiated in 1768 when the British government sent him to the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus. In 1833, John Herschel traveled to South Africa with a 20-foot refractor telescope and began ground-breaking observations of Halley's Comet.

Similarly, Gatley's career as an astronomer took him far from his native England. He was astronomer and senior principal scientific officer at United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Hilo, Hawaii, from 1979 to 1986, and spent the following 11 years at the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Arizona.

"A lot of my thinking comes from my former life," says Gatley. "The South Pole, for example, is an excellent place for a telescope, but I don't want to work there.

"I'm concerned with how we could make it easier for more people to use these facilities and to be better able to gather and distribute important information."

In 1998, Gatley brought RIT into the development of a data network for an infrared telescope at the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA). A multi-disciplinary team of students, faculty and staff created software to compile images captured by the telescope and crafted a system to distribute the information via the Internet to selected astronomers at 15 universities across the United States.

It's difficult to stay ahead when you play at Internet speed. But RIT has a great head start, and is well-positioned to play an important role in new initiatives such as the National Virtual Observatory. Our work in the broad area of information technology will propel RIT further as a leading resource for talent, technology and solutions in these critical fields. It's tremendously exciting."
The resulting "AstroPipeline" operated continuously - and successfully - throughout the long polar night, setting the stage for RIT to take on other projects of this type.

"We learned a lot during the two years we supported that experiment in relentless astronomy,' " says Gatley, who calls the project a "prototype in knowledge networking" involving teams of people at many locations each contributing specific expertise toward a complex goal. "Our team was aware at the time that something very good was happening."

Now, the Center for Imaging Science is working with the Universities Space Research Association on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, which is being built by NASA. The world's largest airborne observatory, SOFIA will feature an 100-inch infrared telescope mounted in a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. RIT won a competitive bid to develop an expanded data cycle system (DCS) for SOFIA.

"When Ian Gatley proposed the DCS to the SOFIA team, they and their NASA sponsors realized just how important it was, and that it was missing from the original plan for SOFIA," says Mark Morris, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles and advisor to the chief scientist for SOFIA. "As a consequence, a multi-institutional effort was set in motion to design and create the DCS. RIT took on the largest role, designing and fabricating the architecture of the core of the system into which all other efforts are to fit. The DCS consists of very modern software, so RIT's task is to produce a very flexible system that will interface with a variety of clients - the instruments, the aircraft, the scientists, the SOFIA personnel, and several peripheral elements of the DCS, such as the data archive (being developed at UCLA).

"The current design from RIT is impressive in its scope, and should remain effective throughout the anticipated 25-year lifetime of the observatory," Morris says.

RIT is involved with the development of SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which will be the world's largest airborne observatory.
Although SOFIA's airplane and the telescope aren't completed, RIT's part of the project has been built, tested and presented to a review team from the Universities Space Research Association. "They got terrifically excited," says Gatley. "They applauded."

"It went really well," agrees SOFIA team member Joel Kastner, associate professor of astronomical imaging and spectroscopy.

Other projects in the works include a proposal to build a similar information pipeline for the next generation infrared instrument at the South Pole, in cooperation with Boston University. If the project receives funding, RIT would help produce digital maps of the southern sky over a broad new range of infrared wavelengths. The National Science Foundation is considering that proposal.

"It would open up a whole new window," notes Kastner. Before coming to RIT in 1999, he spent six years as a staff member at the Chandra X-Ray Center at MIT, and he continues his research involving young stars and planet formation. In March 2000, a team of astronomers led by Kastner made an important discovery: a "hot bubble" of gas surrounding a dying star.

He was able to "see" the bubble from the computer in his office. "All I had to do was log onto a Web site and the information was in my hands," he says. Also significant: He's able to view X-ray images from Chandra as well as infrared images of the same bubble, or, ultimately, images made at other wavelengths - all from his RIT desktop.

Astronomers Joel Kastner, associate professor (left), and Ian Gatley, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, helped forge RIT's new links to the world's astronomy community. At Bottom, three images of planetary nebula BD+30 3639. Far left, an image from Hubble Space Telescope. Center, an infrared image of the nebula. Right, an X-ray image showing a hot bubble of gas discovered last year by a team led by Kastner.

Some observatories, especially space-based observatories like Chandra, are moving in the direction of more and better access to fully processed, calibrated data in easy-to-use archives, using more powerful access tools. And now there is an organized effort within the astronomy community to expand this approach. Last June, the National Academy of Science Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee recommended establishment of a National Virtual Observatory, intended to systematically compile and make available data from all types of space- and ground-based observatories. A white paper on the proposal explains:

"Technological advances in telescope and instrument design during the last 10 years, coupled with the exponential increase in computer and communications capability, have caused a dramatic and irreversible change in the character of astronomical research. Large-scale surveys of the sky from space and ground are being initiated at wavelengths from radio to X-ray, thereby generating vast amounts of high-quality irreplaceable data. The potential for scientific discovery afforded by these new surveys is enormous."

This is a wonderful opportunity for RIT, Gatley believes. "It fits so well with what we do, in imaging science and in information technology. And our involvement is an excellent First in Class (FIC) effort, leading to bigger and even more exciting possibilities for partnering with other institutions and agencies." (See Spring 2000 issue of The University Magazine for more information on First in Class).

Don Boyd, associate provost and director of First In Class, adds that the university has determined that information technology is a fundamental integrating technology for many of the FIC programs. RIT's experience developing information systems for astronomers has applications in many other areas of research. One is remote sensing. For example, RIT's imaging scientists are working on NASA-sponsored research to investigate the technical feasibility of detecting wildfires from a satellite, a project that requires the development of system specifications, simulations of wildfires as seen by a satellite sensor system and performance predictions (See "On Campus," page 3 for more on this project.)

Genomics could be another area of involvement for RIT. The FIC team has developed an overarching infrastructure called the IT Collaboratory to promote and support interdisciplinary research and development among the FIC programs where IT is the basic building block for integration and collaboration. "Looking ahead, our focus will be in the area of integrated remote systems, which involves the design and integration of next-generation information technology applications that capture, process and transmit remotely sensed data," Boyd says.

"It's difficult to stay ahead when you play at Internet speed," notes Gatley. "But RIT has a great head start, and is well-positioned to play an important role in new initiatives such as the National Virtual Observatory. Our work in the broad area of information technology will propel RIT further as a leading resource for talent, technology and solutions in these critical fields. It's tremendously exciting."

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