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Insight Through Images
Astronomers rely heavily upon the use of computers to understand the immense amount of
data collected by radiotelescope arrays. Computers collect data during observations
and convert it into images or other formats for analysis.
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Until recently, the capacity of arrays to generate data far exceeded the scientists' computational capabilities to process and analyze that data. Even at present, image formation can sometimes require months of computing time and severely impede the research process. Eliminating such delays between observation and analysis, thus enabling realtime astronomy, demands new computing techniques and more powerful computers. Future plans to add more dishes to the BIMA array have also reinforced this need.
Since 1992, the Federal Government has enacted legislation to fund and
coordinate the development of a national infrastructure for advanced
computing and communications. The development of this infrastructure is
focused on solving "Grand Challenges," fundamental problems in science and
engineering with broad scientific and/or economic impact.
The grand challenge in radioastronomy is to develop the computational resources for rapid data processing and image formation necessary to achieve realtime astronomy. Funded by the National Science Foundation, and prototyped using the BIMA array, advanced computational technologies will be developed to address this challenge.
Employing high speed communications links, realtime astronomy will enable scientists, regardless of their location, to collaboratively produce images and correct for unexpected results or errors while still observing. This way, they will spend more time on analyzing results than on processing raw data. The high speed links will connect researchers not only to the array but also to powerful computing resources, vast archives of data and images, and most importantly, to each other.
For example, scientists would be able to combine and compare their own observations with pre-existing data and imagery deposited in the archive and share their insights with colleagues located several time zones away, all this in realtime. More efficient collaboration in observation and analysis will hasten the pace of discovery.
It is in this context that the BIMA array is pioneering technologies essential for radioastronomy in the coming decades, when radiotelescope arrays will span several continents, generating huge volumes of data.
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