The Virtual Observatory in action :

new science, new technology,  and next generation facilities.


Proposal for an IAU Symposium

to be held within the IAU General Assembly

Prague, August 2006.


development web site


Submitted Version 03/01/2005


After a few years of early technical development, the Virtual Observatory (VO) is now at a stage where new science is starting to be performed with VO tools and infrastructure. This process should accelerate over the next few years, to the point where it becomes almost invisibly the standard way of doing things. By 2006, the time will be just right to review science performed with the VO, and especially its impact on smaller institutions and poorer countries, along with continued VO technical developments.




The vision of the  Virtual Observatory (VO) is to make access to astronomical databases as seamless and transparent as browsing the World Wide Web is today. The data flowing from facilities and surveys will be standardised, compatible, and easy to examine jointly. Data centres will provide not just data access, but data manipulation tools. These too will be standardised and compatible so that astronomers can mix and match different tools.  Finally, data centres will also provide computational resources - data storage, search engines, analysis engines, and virtual user storage space - which will also be internationally standardised. The result should be an enormous increase in astronomical productivity. As each astronomer sits down at her PC, the world’s data, and all the tools necessary to analyse it, will be at her fingertips.




Achieving the vision requires both technological developments and an international commitment to standardisation and working culture. Increasingly, it will alter the way that astronomers do science, and the way that future facilities and projects plan for their data management, and the scientific exploitation of their data. It will make an impact on a wide variety of astronomical topics, but especially those using very large databases, and those needing a multi-wavelength approach, or more generally the use of multiple archives. 


To date, there are fifteen VO projects worldwide, who co-ordinate their efforts through an International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA). This body evolves and agrees upon technical standards as well as sharing best practice and software. It is widely regarded as a strikingly successful example of international co-operation, and was highlighted as such in the recent OECD report on future large scale facilities in astronomy. The various VO projects have laid the foundations for the VO - international standards, fundamental infrastructure, early demonstrations, and the first published science papers using VO tools - and we expect the next few years to see the VO gradually becoming a working reality.




The next stages will involve


· user uptake worldwide

· science results using VO tools

· deployment of the new infrastructure at data centres

· making links to existing and planned facilities

· much more ambitious data mining analysis services.


These then form the main themes of a symposium for 2006. Our aim therefore is to bring together an exciting blend of new science results, plans for major facilities, and discussion of technical advances in data mining and the VO.




We feel that the time will be just right for an IAU Symposium in August 2006.


There has been a number of national and regional meetings devoted to the VO concept, and a considerable number of technical meetings internal to the specialised VO development community, but a relatively small number of open international meetings. After some early specialised conferences at Caltech and ESO during 2000 and 2002, the first international exposure to a general astronomical audience was at a Joint Discussion held as part of the IAU General Assembly at Sydney in July 2003.  By 2006 we believe that the maturity of the subject, the expected scientific results using new tools, and the importance of the infrastructure to expensive new facilities, make a scientific Symposium attached to the IAU in 2006 an attractive idea.




Astronomical developments also make the Symposium a fruitful prospect. Several major sky survey projects - the SDSS, WFCAM/UKIDSS, VISTA, and the LSST -  will cover the full range from mature archive, through hot new live database, to imminent creation. It is widely acknowledged that the huge volume of these databases, and the need to match them to other data sources to make sense of the objects in them, requires the VO infrastructure for their full exploitation, and we expect to see major advances in cosmology, quasars, and stellar astronomy emerging. More widely, the increasing push to multi-facility science, combining radio, X-ray and optical data, or combining solar and space plasma observations, should be leading to exciting new results. Finally, plans for major new facilities, such as ALMA, GAIA, ELT, or SKA, will be developed explicitly with the new infrastructure  in mind.




One of the fundamental aims of the Virtual Observatory initiative is democratisation of astronomy. The infrastructure is global. The IVOA develops open standards. Tools and software components developed worldwide are shared.  Data centres, as well as providing open access to key databases, will provide server-based search, query, and analysis services, as well as distributed storage services. The result will be that facilities in Mumbai will be just as good as those in Caltech. The VO is fundamentally aligned with the ICSU position in breaking down the "digital divide". A particular focus of the proposed Symposium will be to explore how well this vision is developing.


Draft program


Each session is a quarter day.



Session-1  Technology Demonstrations

Session-2  Technology Demonstrations

Session-3   Introductory Reviews

Session-4   Results and prospects from Sky Survey programmes



Session-3 VO technical advances and Data Mining Algorithms

Session-4 The Sun-Earth connection

Session-5 Cosmology and Quasars-I

Session-6 Cosmology and Quasars-II



Session-7 Large scale facilities and data management

Session-8 Galactic Structure and extreme stellar populations

Half-day break.



Session-9 Technology Demonstrations

Session-10 Technology Demonstrations

Session-11The VO worldwide

Session-12 Solar system science



Session-13 The VO and outreach

Session-14 The future of the VO

Session-15 Conference summary.






Technology demonstrations. Throughout the IAU, the main international VO projects will establish stalls showing the current VO infrastructure in action. These will be visited on a drop-in basis throughout the two-week GA, including the time when the VO Symposium is running. However, we will also provided scheduled sessions with organised "walk-throughs" of software and science results as a formal part of the Symposium programme.


Introductory reviews. These reviews will explain the VO vision, examine the technological readiness of the VO to date, and summarise key science areas where we expect the VO to have an impact.


Sky Survey programmes. By the time of the Symposium, SDSS will have a large and mature data set, the UKIDSS IR sky survey programme will be partially completed, VISTA will be about to start, and plans for the LSST will be well advanced. The VO infrastructure will be crucial to getting science out of all these and so we expect significant interest. We also see the automated survey instruments such as MACHO and successors, as well as robotic facilities such as the Liverpool Telescope, in this bracket.


Sun-Earth connection and solar system science.  The key scientific interest is in combining information from solar observatories with earth-orbiting space plasma experiments, in order to understand space weather. We also expect interest in VO tools from scientists looking for near-Earth objects and Trans-Neptunian objects in large optical automated surveys. These communities have often been somewhat separate from mainstream astrophysics, but there is a lot in common, so we are particularly to highlight these areas.


Cosmology, quasars, galaxies, stellar populations etc.  A considerable range of science topics should find the VO infrastructure and tools important. Sometimes this is just because of the importance of multi-wavelength data, and so of multiple archives from different centres; sometimes it is because of the desire to use extremely large databases; and often it is specifically the need to locate rare objects in multi-dimensional parameter space. Finally, in all these areas, astronomers increasingly want to perform not just data searches, but rather ambitious kinds of data analysis - correlation analyses, mixture fitting, etc. One of the aims of the VO is to make such things easy for everybody, not just for "power users".


Future facilities and data management.  Large projects are increasingly realising that they have to build their data management chains to fit the new vision of the VO - not just outputting standard formats, but making provision for science-ready archives as the main mode of user access, and providing new services within the VO infrastructure, such as user-tunable pipeline processing, and VO-compatible proposal request and instrument control. In this session, we will be open to whoever wishes to talk, but we would expect contributions from both current observatories and facilities, and the big players in new projects, such as ALMA, LSST, Planck, GAIA, and ELT.


VO technology and the future.  The main focus of the Symposium is on science made possible by the VO. However we also wish to review key technology advances that have made this possible, and to look forward to the next technology steps needed to facilitate science. The two key areas here are in advanced data mining algorithms, and more intelligent resource discovery and utilisation, linked to global developments in the semantic web. 


The VO worldwide.  The VO infrastructure links up the world's databases transparently, and there is an increasing focus on services provided by facilities and data centres. This means astronomers in small institutions and poorer countries come much closer to being on an equal footing with those in large institutions and rich countries.  This is why the IVOA contains VO projects from all over the world, including Asia and Eastern Europe. As well as access for their astronomers, they are keen to contribute data and resources from their own facilities. We will be keen to hear from world-wide representatives whether this vision is becoming a reality, and what else we need to do.


VO and outreach.  As well as professional astronomers world-wide, the VO infrastructure will make it easier for schoolchildren and teachers to use and interact with real astronomical data and facilities. There are currently several active projects aimed at such outreach, and we would expect contributions from them.


Conference summary.  We will select someone distinguished to make a closing keynote speech. In addition we will select two individuals to review the posters, and report on selected highlights.



Poster papers will be strongly encouraged, so that oral talks can be of a more general nature, and given plenty of time for discussion.




We will invite speakers to cover four main themes. We will aim at securing something like 8-10 keynote speakers. The names below are preliminary ideas. Noone has been contacted yet.


(1) The first and most important theme is science with the VO. Our first priority is therefore to invite senior scientists to give review talks in relevant science areas, such as cosmology, extreme steallar objects, or solar system science. Their remit will be both to review the science topic and to consider how the VO is important for this area. Some preliminary names are :


Jim Peebles (talked at 2002 Garching VO meeting)

Jerry Ostriker  (talked at 2002 Garching VO meeting)

Harayuki Okuda (X-ray astronomy, Japan)


(2) The second theme is large telescope and survey projects. Possible names are :


Konrad Kuijken (VST, VISTA)

Tony Tyson (LSST project)

Gerry Gilmore (GAIA project)

Someone from Astro-F survey (Japan)


(3) The third theme is VO technology. Here we will aim for key VO project leaders and/or senior figures in the larger world of Web, e-Science, or Grid worlds. Possible names are :


Peter Quinn  (leader of Euro-VO project)

Alex Szalay (leader of US-NVO)

Ian Foster (Grid guru, Argonne Lab)

Carole Goble (Bio-informatics)


(4) The fourth theme is VO democratisation and outreach. Possible names are


Ajit Khembhavi (India)

Chenzhou Cui (China)

Sang Chul Kim (Korea)










Sent: 04 December 2004 11:06



Subject: Commission 5/Prague VO Symposium


Dear Andy,


Commission 5 fully supports the proposal you lead, to hold a Symposium entitled "The Virtual Observatory in action: new science, new technology, and next generation facilities" attached to the IAU General Assembly in Prague.


Building the astronomical Virtual Observatory is one of the very few truly global endeavours of astronomy, and so it is very appropriate to hold the Symposium in conjunction with the IAU General Assembly. The first Virtual Observatory projects were started in 2001, and the Virtual Observatory Alliance, which groups together individual projects, was formed in 2002. The Joint Discussion "Large telescopes & Virtual Observatories: Visions for the Future" at GA XXV was a very successful forum in which the concept was presented to the worldwide astronomical community, whose feedback was useful for validation and further development.


VO projects have been extremely active in the last years, and the concept is now mature enough to enable new science. It is time to present the community with the potential it offers. All sub-fields of astronomy will benefit from the VO, each bringing its own requirements to it, and the Symposium format is best suited to present and discuss all its scientific aspects and novelty.


The Symposium will be an important milestone for the VO, touching the community well beyond VO projects and beyond their national borders. VO is no longer just a topic for aficionados. Instead astronomers from many different backgrounds are starting to ask what the VO will mean for them, and for their science, and how  their observatory should be involved. Even more importantly, it is essential that the future directions of the VO are guided by the astronomical community as a whole.



Francoise Genova

Commission 5 president


(Radio Astronomy)


Prof. Andrew Lawrence

Head of School of Physics

University of Edinburgh



Dear Prof. Lawrence:


On behalf of Commission 40 (Radio Astronomy) of the International Astronomy Union, I am very pleased to support your proposal for an IAU Symposium entitled "The Virtual Observatory in action : new science, new technology, and next generation facilities", to be held during the XXVIth IAU General Assembly  in Prague 2006.


This interesting proposal departs from the usual, in the sense that it is focused in the Virtual Observatory project and not on an astronomical object or phenomenon. The Virtual Observatory project has the goal of making access to astronomical databases as seamless and transparent as browsing the World Wide Web is today. Being myself (as many other astronomers) a user of presently available archival databases I feel that it is important to review, shape,and define this ambitious project.


The proposed scientific organizing committee is well balanced, and as a result of enormous potential of a working Virtual Observatory, this symposium will certainly be of interest for the participants of the Prague 2006 General Asembly.  The proposal will include technology demonstrations with organized"walk-throughs" of software and science results.


In summary, I amply support this proposal and look forward to its  approval.




Dr. Luis F. Rodriguez

President of Commission 40


ccp. Dr. Virginia Trimble, President of Division XII

     Dr. Karel A. van der Hucht, IAU Assistant General Secretary


(Space and High Energy Astrophysics)


From: Haruyuki Okuda []

Sent: 18 December 2004 03:23



Subject: IAU symposium


Dear Prof. Andy Lawrence,


     From Dr. Masatoshi Ohishi, one of the SOC members, I have recently known that you were asking me to send a supporting letter to your proposal for the IAU symposium "The Virtual Observatory in Action: New Science, New Technology and Next Generation Facilities".  I have checked my mailing list in the past, but I could not find your mail. I do not know why.


     Any way, I have read your proposal sent to Dr. Ohishi,  and find it very interesting proposal.  In every field of astronomy, observational data are flooded  by the rapid developments of observational technique. Tremendous amount of data have been continuously produced from various facilities in ground based observatories as well as from space borne telescopes. Now, full use of these data sets is impossible without powerful coordination among the different fields and introduction of new  infrastructure.  I think the idea of Virtual Observatory should be the best solution. In this respect, your proposal is very valuable to advance the idea and organize world wide collaboration.  Since many space missions are in operations, and many others are in preparations, it is quite timely to have such a symposium also for our community of Space and High Energy Astrophysics. As the president of Division XI, I am pleased to support the proposal for the IAU symposium "The Virtual Obervatory in Action: New Science, New Technology and New Generation Facilities"to be held at Prague in 2006.


      Sincerely yours,



      Haruyuki Okuda

      President of Division XI,

     Space and High Energy Astrophysics





From: Gerry Gilmore []

Sent: 19 November 2004 17:16


Subject: support for proposed IAU meeting for the Virtual Observatory



Hi Andy,


I confirm support for your proposed IAU meeting related to the Virtual Observatory from the IAU WG on Future Large Scale facilities. The IVOA is developing rapidly to become not only a premier Large Scale facility in its own right, but also to be a critical enabling infrastructure which will support and enhance many other future Large Scale Facilities.


It is clear that the present state of extremely rapid development of IVOA,and its varioua national activities across the globe, make it ideally qualified for IAU sponsorship.



good luck with your proposal


gerry Gilmore


Chair, IAU WG Future Large Scale facilities.



Gerry Gilmore FInstP ScD

Professor of Experimental Philosophy

Institute of Astronomy         direct phone +44 (0)1223 337506

Cambridge University           secretary: Suzanne Howard

Madingley Road                            +44 (0)1223 766097

Cambridge CB3 0HA              


                               fax      +44(0)1223 339910/7523

                               mobile       +44 (0)771 2774522











Date: Mon, 22 Nov 2004 11:02:04 +1100 (EST)

From: Quentin Parker <>

To: Andrew Lawrence <>

Cc: Quentin Parker <>

Subject: Re: VO Symposium proposal for Prague IAU


Dear Prof Lawrence,


thank you for submitting your draft submission concerning an IAU symposium on the Astrophysical Virtual Observatory for our comment and endorsement.


As chair of the IAU working group on Sky Surveys (Commission IX) I strongly support this proposal.


An IAU endorsed symposium at the next General Assembly on this important and rapidly maturing multi-national initiative is extremely timely and would be of considerable interest to many prospective attendees.


The proposed SOC appears balanced and representative, whilst the topic list is well structured and comprehensive. Finally it is not hard to make a compelling scientific case to hold such a colloquium at the next IAU as it strikes as the very heart of how we will exploit and manage multi-wavelength, multi-facility data of increasing complexity, scope and volume in the near future.



Best regards,





Dr. Quentin A Parker

Chair IAU Working Group on Sky Surveys

Department of Physics

Macquarie University

Sydney 2109 AUSTRALIA








Sent: 19 November 2004 18:34


Subject: Re: Prague IAU VO proposal


Dear Andy,


Thank you for your e-mail - I'm sorry that I have been so slow responding.


An IAU Symposium related to Virtual Observatories is an excellent idea and by the proposed date we hope that many VOs will be in general use and will be making a real impact on the analysis of data.


We have started to make some real progress in bringing together the solar and heliospheric VOs under the Division II working group on International Data Access. We recently had a very productive meeting in the US which brought together interested parties in this area, including the five VO projects dedicated to this community.


One or more representatives of the Working Group would be happy  to serve on the SOC to help organanize this event.


Best Regards






as submitted to IAU proposal Server Jan 3rd 2005.


(1)  Title:

The Virtual Observatory in action : new science, new technology,  and next generation facilities.


(2)  Date and duration:

2006-08-14 or 2006-08-21 duration 5 days.


(3)  Location:



(4)  Coordinating IAU Division:

Division XII "Union Wide Activity"


(5)  Proposing Commission:

IAU Commission 5 "Documentation and Astronomical Data"


(6)  Supporting Commission(s):


C40 Radio Astronomy

C44/DXI  Space and High Energy Astrophysics

WG of the Executive on Large Scale Facilities

WG on Surveys

WG on Solar Data Access


Also hope for further support letters from

C47 Cosmology

C9 Instrumentation and Techniques


(7)  Other ICSU body co-sponsoring the meeting, if any:

Could approach CODATA if the proposal is approved.


(8)  Other supporting organisations, if any:

N/A for symposium proposal.


(9)  Contact address:

Prof. A.Lawrence

Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ

Scotland, UK

Telephone: +44-(0)131-668-8346

Telefax:   +44-(0)131-668-8416



(10) Proposed Scientific Organising Committee


We intend to recruit one additional member for the SOC from outside Europe and the USA.





Andy Lawrence



Head of School of Physics, University of Edinburgh. Project Leader of AstroGrid project. PI of UKIDSS IR sky survey project. Current chair of International Virtual Observatory Alliance.

Masatoshi Ohishi


National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Tokyo. Leader of Japanese Virtual Observatory project. Current deputy-chair of  International Virtual Observatory Alliance.

Francoise Genova


Director of CDS, University of Strasbourg, France. Leader of France-VO initiative. President of IAU Commission 5. 

Ray Norris


Deputy Director of the Australia National Telescope Facility, Australia. Vice-President of IAU Commission 5.  

Attila Meszaros

Czech Republic

Astronomical Institute, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. High energy astrophysicist.

Robert Hanisch


Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA. Project Manager of US National Virtual Observatory Project. 

Peter Quinn


Head of Data Management Division, European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany. Overall leader of Euro-VO programme. 

Alexander Szalay


Department of Physics and Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins

University, USA. Leading cosmologist on Sloan Digital Sky Survey Team. PI of US National Virtual Observatory project.

Nicholas Walton


Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK. Specialist in time variable astronomy. Project Scientist for UK AstroGrid project. 

Oleg Malkov


Institute of Astronomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia. Leader of Russian Virtual Observatory project.

Ajit Khembhavi


Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, India. Expert in quasar studies. Leader of Indian Virtual Observatory project.

Roy Williams


Center for Advanced Computing Research, California Institute of Technology, USA. Distinguished computer scientist and Technical Lead in the International Virtual Observatory Alliance.     

Giuseppina Fabbiano


Chandra Science Centre, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, USA. Specialist in X-ray studies of galaxies. Led Chandra science software development.

Isabelle Scholl


International Space University, French campus. Distinguished solar physicist and Professor of Space Information Technologies.

Zhao Yongheng


Director of World Data Center for Astronomy, Beijing Astronomical Observatory. Leader of Chinese Virtual Observatory Project.

Enrique Solano


Laboratory For Space Astrophysics and Theoretical Physics.

INTA, Madrid. Leader of Spanish Virtual Observatory Project.




(11) Proposed Local Organising Committee:


N/A for Symposium.


(12) Proposed Editor(s) of the Proceedings:


Chief Edditor : Andy Lawrence

Assistant Editors : Roy Williams, Nicholas Walton


(13) Expected or maximum number of participants:

Approx 250


(14) Registration fee:


N/A for Symposium


(15) Expected price of 2-3 categories of  hotels and/or other accommodations:


N/A for Symposium


(16) Amount requested for travel support from the IAU:


N/A for Symposium


(17) Topics in the Preliminary Scientific Programme (max. 10 lines):

     (For announcement in the IAU Information Bulletin)


- Cosmology and Galactic Structure  with very large databases

- Rare object multi-wavelength searches : the universe at 10 pc and z=10

- Serendipitous discoveries with the VO

- The Sun-Earth connection

- Population analysis : stars, galaxies, quasars, solar system bodies

- Data mining with SDSS, WFCAM, VISTA and the LSST

- Data management for ALMA, ELT, GAIA, and SKA

- Technical progress on the VO infrastructure

- New data mining algorithms

- The semantic web and the future VO


(18) Detailed scientific rationale and draft programme.


draft attached.

will also be  available on IVOA web pages


(18) Statement on confirmation of ICSU policy on freedom of attendance.


We confirm that attendance from ALL countries is guaranteed, in accordance with the ICSU rules on Freedom in the Conduct of Science.




(19) Proposer






Professor Andrew Lawrence




(20) President of Co-ordinating IAU Division



Division Number


Professor Virgina Trimble