Visualising Astronomical Data using VRML

Optimizing scientific return for astronomy through information technologies.
Proceedings of the SPIE, Volume 5493, pp. 242-253, 2004. Doi: 10.1117/12.551030

Brett Beesona, Michael Lancastera, David G. Barnesa, Paul D. Bourkeb, Guy Rixonc.

a School of Physics, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic 3010, Australia
b Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Vic 3122, Australia.
c Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0HA, United Kingdom

Visualisation is a powerful tool for understanding the large data sets typical of astronomical surveys and can reveal unsuspected relationships and anomalous regions of parameter space which may be difficult to find programatically. Visualisation is a classic information technology for optimising scientific return. We are developing a number of generic on-line visualisation tools as a component of the Australian Virtual Observatory project. The tools will be deployed within the framework of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA), and follow agreed-upon standards to make them accessible by other programs and people. We and out IVOA partners plan to utilise new information technologies (such as grid computing and web services) to advance the scientific return of existing and future instrumentation.

Here we present a new tool - VOlume - which visualises point data. Visualisation of astronomical data normally requires the local installation of complex software, the downloading of potentially large datasets, and very time consuming and tedious data format conversions. VOlume enables the astronomer to visualise data using just a web browser and plug-in. This is achieved using IVOA standards which allow us to pass data between Web Services, Java Servlet Technology and Common Gateway Interface programs. Data from a catalogue server can be streamed in eXtensible Mark-up Language format to a servlet which produces Virtual Reality Modelling Language output. The user selects elements of the catalogue to map to geometry and then visualises the result in a browser plug-in such as Cortona or FreeWRL.

Other than requiring an input VOTable format file, VOlume is very general. While its major use will likely be to display and explore astronomical source catalogues, it can easily render other important parameter fields such as the sky and redshift coverage of proposed surveys or the sampling of the visibility plane by a rotation-synthesis interferometer.