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Headlines Published on 24 November 2010

Title New cable makes astronomical data easily available

Data compiled from isolated observatories in Chile will now be easily available thanks to the creation of a 100-kilometre-long cable stretching through the harsh Atacama Desert. The cable will connect the European Southern Observatory (ESO)'s Paranal Observatory and the Observatorio Cerro Armazones, thereby completing the last gap in the high-speed link between them and Europe. The new cable is an outcome of the EVALSO ('Enabling virtual access to Latin American southern observatories') project, which clinched EUR 1.7 million under the Capacities Programme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Aerial view of the Atacama Desert © Shutterstock
Aerial view of the Atacama Desert
© Shutterstock

Experts say the sites of Paranal and Armazones are ideal for astronomical observation due to their high altitude, clear skies and remoteness from light pollution. But their location means they are far from any pre-existing communications infrastructure, which until now has left them dependent on a microwave link to send scientific data back to a base station near Antofagasta in northern Chile. Project coordinator Fernando Liello said the new cable will 'bring benefits to the academic communities both in Europe and Latin America'.

Telescopes at ESO's Paranal observatory generate well over 100 gigabytes of data per night, equivalent to more than 20 DVDs (digital video disk). The existing link is sufficient to carry data from the current generation of instruments at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory. However, it does not have the bandwidth to handle data from the VISTA telescope (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy), the world's largest survey telescope, or for the new generation of VLT instruments, due to be launched in the next few years.

So astronomers have only been able to send much of the data from Paranal to ESO headquarters by saving it onto hard drives and sending these by airmail. This can mean a wait of days or even weeks before observations from VISTA are ready for analysis. 'ESO's observatory at Paranal is growing, with new telescopes and instruments coming online,' explained ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw. 'Our world-class scientific observatories need state-of-the-art infrastructure.'

While the existing connection has a limit of 16 megabit/second (similar to home ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband), EVALSO will provide a much faster 10 gigabit/second link — a speed fast enough to transfer an entire DVD movie in a matter of seconds.

The dramatic increase in bandwidth will offer several advantages: allowing the increased use of Paranal's data from a distance, in real-time; facilitating the monitoring of the VISTA telescope's performance; and allowing quicker access to VLT data, thereby increasing the responsiveness of quality control. And with the expanded bandwidth, the ESO said new opportunities will open up, such as astronomers and technicians taking part in meetings via high-definition videoconferencing without having to travel to Chile. Moreover, looking forward, the new link will provide enough bandwidth to keep up with the ever-growing volumes of information from Paranal and Armazones in future years, as new and bandwidth-intensive instruments come into use.

But immediate remote access to data at a distant location is not just about saving money and making the observatory's work more efficient, according to the ESO. 'For unexpected and unpredictable events, such as gamma-ray bursts, there is often not enough time for astronomers to travel to observatories, and EVALSO will give experts a chance to work remotely on these events almost as if they were at the observatory.' said the researchers said.

More information:

  • FP7 Capacities Programme

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