A Universal Name Resolver

I hope you've been following my last two posts, about astronomical imagery metadata and microformats, as they set the stage for this one. I got to the point of playing about with the implementation of an unofficial microformat for the official Astronomy Visualisation Metadata standard under development. Shortly after I started playing I realised that not many people would have the patience to sit and fill in fields detailing the object name, the coordinates, the type of object etc etc. The AVM folks have made a nice online tool to help, but really it should be possible to complete a lot of those fields automatically given the object name.

To make a tool to automagically generate my proposed microformat I have, almost accidentally, created a Universal Name Resolver; something that can provide the properties of an object given a common (or even uncommon) name for it. Want to know the RA/Dec of the Crab Nebula, C2, Mercury, SN 2008D, or Apophis? Perhaps you want to know what OGLE-TR-56 b and M87 are?

These types of services existed already but the trouble was that they have grown up from different areas of astronomy and space science and no single one covers the entire universe, as far as I'm aware. You can use the SkyBot name resolver within the Solar System (except for comets), NED to lookup extragalactic objects, and SIMBAD to find most astronomical objects inbetween. Those three don't include many supernovae and recent extrasolar planet discoveries but that is easily solved by looking in the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia and the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams Supernova list.

What I have done is create some software (with the benefit of the excellent WCSTools package) which talks to each service until it can find the object specified. It also compares against the supernovae, extrasolar planet, constellation, and Caldwell catalogues and works out the full AVM taxonomy listing for objects whilst it is at it. This is really a case of building on the shoulders of giants as the really hard job of parsing through hundreds of astronomical catalogues is done by the wonderful SkyBot, SIMBAD, and NED services.

As with my proposed microformat, this really is a work in progress and is certainly not perfect. Even if it doesn't get used for microformats, I could see it being pretty useful in its own right. Please let me have feedback about it in the comments. Before I finish, thanks to my early testers Dave P and Tom for their suggestions and comments. Dave even went as far as to make an EMACS script which calls it!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 27th Aug 2008 (16:00 BST) | Permalink
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