The Future of the Virtual Observatory

Virtual Astronomy, e-Astronomy, and AstroInformatics are the basis for much of current astronomical research.  Network-based access to distributed data will become increasingly important in the future as our telescopes and instruments produce petabyte-scale archives, with individual observation datasets too large to download to a desktop computer.  The standards and protocols that have been developed by the VAO, working in concert with worldwide partners in the International Virtual Observatory Alliance, enable global data discovery and interoperability and are designed to support access to “big data”.

The priorities identified in the Decadal Survey cannot all be carried out given the funding available for astronomy at NSF and NASA.   Indeed, NSF’s Portfolio Review process has led the agency to plan for the withdrawal of support from several key facilities over the next several years.  However, NSF and NASA will continue to support the VAO project through September 2014.  The VAO, in consultation with its Board of Directors, Science Council, and members of the research community, has given top priority to three infrastructure activities in the next year:

  1. Completion and deployment of the data access protocol for data cubes, or hyper-cubes,

  2. Completion and release of a set of Python language bindings to VO protocols to enable community-based development of VO-enabled science tools, and

  3. Revision of the VAO resource registry (the directory of VO-compliant data collections and services worldwide) to the latest international standard and improvement of the interface data providers use to work with the registry.

VAO software and infrastructure will be fully documented and made available through an open repository for re-use.  We will continue to monitor VO services for aliveness and compliance to standards, to stay connected with the research community through our website, and to assist those interested in sharing data. There will be no new development of VAO science applications, though we will support what has been completed.  We are optimistic that our science applications will continue to be maintained by the organizations that developed them within the VAO collaboration.

The VAO project—working in collaboration with our international partners—will leave the astronomy community with a robust infrastructure, a flexible Python scripting toolkit, and useful software packages, all in a publicly accessible software repository.  In the coming year we will be seeking organizations willing to take on support for these components, and we will work toward the creation of a community-supported open source model for VO-aware software.  We look forward to continuing to support researchers in the practice of virtual astronomy.

Robert Hanisch
Senior Scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute
VAO Director
August 12, 2013