Astronomical efforts open new worlds
|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
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
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.
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.
|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
"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
"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.
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."
|RIT is involved with the development of SOFIA, the Stratospheric
Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which will be the world's
largest airborne observatory.
"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
|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