The Groundbreaking Discovery You've Never Heard Of: Why Astronomy's Biggest Problem is Too Much Data

Monday, 14 May 2018 - 1:02PM
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Astronomy
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Monday, 14 May 2018 - 1:02PM
The Groundbreaking Discovery You've Never Heard Of: Why Astronomy's Biggest Problem is Too Much Data
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Last month, the Gaia satellite's second massive data dump (aptly called Data Release 2) became the event of the season – maybe even the decade. According to Jackie Faherty, one of the astronomers who woke up before the crack of dawn to start sifting through the information: "This is the data we're going to be working on for the rest of my career. Probably no data set will rival this... It's exciting to be around each other and trying to get the data all at once. It's a day we're going to remember."

Looking toward the future, breakthroughs in astronomy are going to start looking like Gaia DR2: instead of peering through lenses in lone observatories, telescopes like Square Kilometre Array will pull in reams and reams of data that can only be tackled by teams of astronomers around the world, armed with powerful computers and a willingness to spend their days searching for subtle patterns that could reveal anything from hidden exoplanets to wandering black holes lurking in the Milky Way.

According to Eileen Meyer, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, we're going to see an "explosion" when it comes to the amount of data coming from our telescopes in the next couple years. For a sense of scale, consider that the Hubble Space Telescope (established in 1990) collects about 20 GB of raw data every week – while the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile is estimated to begin collecting about 2 TB every day. All of that pales in comparison, however, to the mammoth Square Kilometre Array, which is set to come online in 2020: over the course of one year, it will "generate more data than the entire internet."

The only way to deal with this sheer amount of information, Meyer says, is to make research collaborative. NASA and Google have already taken this to heart – you can now sign up to help find exoplanets that were overlooked by sorting through Kepler data using Google's custom machine learning algorithm on your own computer. It's an exciting time to be an astronomer, but even more exciting for fans of space exploration: now you, too, can search the skies for alien life or new stars... As long as you enjoy looking at spreadsheets.

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