The Virtual Astronomical Observatory and the Institute

Robert Hanisch,, and Gretchen Greene,

VAOlogoOn May 15, 2010, the National Science Foundation issued a long-anticipated cooperative agreement to create a new research facility for astronomy: the Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO). The earlier National Virtual Observatory laid the foundation of the VAO by developing standards, protocols, and other infrastructure elements. The charter of the VAO is to promote scientific discovery with distributed data collections by making archival research much more efficient, effective, and productive.

The funding of VAO includes substantial support from NASA.

The VAO collaboration comprises the nine organizations in Table 1.

Table 1: VAO Member Organizations

Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)
The Johns Hopkins University (JHU)
High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC)
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO)
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)
National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)
Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC)
California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA)

VAO, LLC—a non-profit corporation—will manage the new facility. The corporation was created jointly by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., which operates the Institute and NOAO, and Associated Universities, Inc., which operates NRAO and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Further information about the organization and governance of the VAO is at

The near-term goal of the VAO is to put useful and efficient tools in the hands of research astronomers as soon as possible. Four major initiatives are planned in the first year of operations:

  • An updated portal for data search and delivery. A key component of the portal is the “directory,” which is essentially an advanced “yellow pages,” containing metadata—information about information—to describe global astronomical resources, such as images, spectra, and catalogs. The VAO portal will also incorporate image visualization, maps of spatial coverage, and navigation to other web-based science applications for the global VAO network.
  • Easy access and analysis for time-series data. The focus will be on the data from the Time Series Center at the Harvard, NASA’s Star and Exoplanet Database at IPAC, and Kepler data in the Multimission Archive at Space Telescope (MAST).
  • Dynamic generation and analysis of spectral-energy distributions, including editing, analysis, and visualization tools.
  • Large-scale probabilistic cross-matching, in which objects in two or more catalogs are compared for positional coincidence taking into account the spatial resolution and measurement uncertainties associated with each catalog.