Compiled and Edited by Ray Norris, October 2006
Note: At the request of the CODATA secretariat, this report is more concise that previous reports, with much of the supporting material being replaced by web links.
Data activities in the International Astronomical Union (IAU) have assumed even greater importance in 2004-6 because of the continued growth of the Virtual Observatory (VO), coupled with the greater awareness of data-related issues in astronomy. There have been extensive e-discussions on data issues, culminating in a Special Sessions on the Virtual Observatory and on Data Management at the 2006 IAU General Assembly in Prague, in October 2006.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) promotes, safeguards, and co-ordinates world-wide astronomy. Its membership includes 9100 professional astronomers and 70 adherent nations. Its activities are divided amongst 12 Scientific Divisions and, through them, 37 specialised Commissions. General Assemblies, held every three years, review the status of worldwide astronomy, and define the IAU’s long-term policy, which is implemented by the Executive Committee. Further details may be found at the Union’s web-site (http://www.iau.org).
Within the Astronomical Union, one commission (Commission 5) is primarily concerned with the management of documentation and scientific data, and includes the following Working Groups and Task Force:
Further information on Commission 5 is on http://www.atnf.csiro.au/people/rnorris/IAUC5
The largest data-related project in astronomy is the Virtual Observatory (VO), whose goal is to make access to astronomical databases as seamless and transparent as browsing the World Wide Web. It will federate the data flows from current and future facilities and large scale surveys, and the computational resources and new tools necessary to exploit them. This requires both technological developments and an international commitment to standardisation. Increasingly, it will alter the way that astronomers do science, and the way that future facilities and projects plan for the management and scientific exploitation of their data.
There are currently sixteen VO projects worldwide, which co-ordinate their efforts through an International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA: http://www.ivoa.net).
A network of local, national, and international data centres serves as repositories for raw and calibrated astronomical data and for the tables and catalogues of astronomical objects extracted from those data and published in peer-reviewed journals. Many thousands of astronomical catalogues and many hundreds of terabytes of imaging, spectral, and time series data are available to the research community through these data centres. Many are operated by major research facilities such as the European Southern Observatory (Germany), the Space Telescope Science Institute (USA) and other NASA mission support centres, the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. Others are hosted by dedicated survey projects like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the NRAO VLA FIRST Survey. Catalogue and data compilation services such as the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED) and Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS) are heavily used by research astronomers. The Astrophysics Data System (ADS) provides a comprehensive bibliographic database and links between the peer-reviewed literature and many of the underlying datasets. Web addresses for these and other astronomical data centres can be found on http://www.atnf.csiro.au/people/rnorris/IAUC5/Centres.
The IAU General Assembly in 2006 was notable in having a greater focus on data issues than any previous General Assembly, and successfully raised the profile of data issues within the astronomical community.
Most significant was a 2.5-day Special Session on the Virtual Observatory (VO), which marked an important milestone for the VO, with presentation and discussion of the current status of the VO in several different aspects, including implementation by data centres, scientific usage by the community, and technical challenges.
The VO special session was followed by a Special Session on Data Management, marking the first time that this topic has been discussed amongst the broader astronomical community at a GA. This was accompanied by other specialist meetings on data management, and also short daily articles on aspects of data management in the IAU daily newspaper.
The Working Group on Astronomical Data (WGAD) has been very active in 2005-6, conducting a series of lively electronic discussions on data management issues as a lead-up to the General Assembly (see www.ivoa.net/twiki/bin/view/Astrodata/ and tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/astro-data/).
The VO community has been very active during the last triennium, and is now at a stage where the objectives and organization of the VO Working Group have been fully clarified: its primary role is to provide an interface between International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA) activities, in particular IVOA standards and recommendations, and other IAU standards, policies, and recommendations. It raises VO-related topics (e.g. symposia, GA sessions) that should be handled by the IAU (Commission 5, Division XII and Executive level). It is responsible for approving the standards proposed by IVOA, after checking that there has been a process of consultancy according to the IVOA procedures, and that the proposed standards are consistent with other IAU approved standards (e.g., FITS, coordinate standards, etc.). The IAU WG VO brings to the attention of the IVOA Executive any topics it considers to be important for the IVO. It can be consulted by the IVOA Executive on any topic relevant to the international development of the VO.