Interactive Map of Optical and Radio Telescopes


This week I set aside half of Tuesday and half of Wednesday for my very own hack day. For a while now I've been wanting to create an interactive map of telescopes around the world, partly because I've found that people are often confused* about why the telescopes astronomers use are inevitably on the other side of the planet, and partly because I wanted to see how quickly I could  learn some mapping data visualisations and finish a project-in-a-day. This is what I created. Pan and zoom to your heart's content...

Another reason for doing this was to get a feeling for how easy it would be to teach researchers in other disciplines. During our e-Research Symposium last week we discussed the idea of  having Hacky Hour for Swinburne researchers, similar to that organised by the ResBaz folks at Melbourne.

(*Occasionally when I tell people Swinburne has a radio astronomy group they ask if researcher use telescope on top of the Engineering building. When I worked in Liverpool people were confused when I told them the Liverpool Telescope was in fact in the Canary Islands. When I tell people I used to go to ESO Headquarters in Munich they are surprised to find out that the ESO telescopes are actually situated on top of a mountain in Chile... and then there's the Hubble Space Telescope!!)

Anyway, prior to this had I started looking at using one of the Javascript libraries and spent a day working though a couple of  Mike Bostocks (the founder) Let's Make a Map/Bubble Map  tutorials, which I highly recommend despite the steep learning code for the CSS and Javascript illiterate like myself. After a couple of hours I  soon realised that what I wanted to do was actually much simpler and I wasn't too fussed about customisation. Thanks to Steve Bennett (@stevage1), I remembered there was CartoDB.  This is an open source, cloud-based, geospatial mapping platform that allows you make visually stunning maps -  your own datasets - in very little time and with very little effort.

The following image is an example of the sort of visualisations you can make and they are all available to explore on the CartoDB website.

If you are creating visualisations for education and research purposes you can sign up for  a FREE account with the following specifications;

  • Cloud-based application.
  • A maximum of  six datasets can be uploaded.
  • 75 Mb account limit (actually quite a lot, my telescope map is only 0.1 Mb because I link to existing online images)
  • Access to common datasets, for example countries, river systems, NYC subways, population data.
  • Public visualisations that can be embedded in websites.
  • Map and SQL  APIs that let you interact with data remotely.
  • 10,000 map views/month (eek - let's see how we go...)

So after about two solid hours of work (mainly setting up the excel database and getting telescope coordinates from Wiki and Google Maps)  I had a basic terrain map of optical and radio telescopes around the world Fortunately a lot the telescope parameters; location, site name, mirror size, effective aperture, operator, image,  and image credit were available through Wikipedia so that saved a lot of time creating the database. It also helps to know exactly how you want to present the data before you start. Primarily the data is from these two websites; Wikipedia's List of largest optical reflecting telescopes and  the List of large optical telescopes. The map is far from complete, there are many more optical telescopes. Shortly I'll be adding single dish radio telescopes and arrays. But I think this a good start. 

I have spent quite a bit of time tinkering with the various mapping options; base maps, various zoom levels, formatting information windows, switching between clustered telescopes i.e. multiple telescopes per observatory or single points. Getting the correct base map was really important for this exercise since telescopes at major observatories, for example Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Kitt Peak in Arizona, and Roque de los Muchachos in the Canary Islands, can have up to a dozen telescopes tightly packed on a mountain top/crater rim. I also felt that having a terrain map really shows the remoteness of the observatories, not just in terms of location but  the landscapes themselves. Construction is a feat in itself. Incidentally here is a video of a Chilean mountain top being blown off in preparation for the construction of ESO's future E-ELT (Extremely Large Telescope).

Back to CartoDB.  I opted for both 'click' (top box with image) and  'hover' (black info box without image) on a terrain map. Here it is. One advantage over Google maps is the pop up information box for each telescope. Included is the which name of the site, the country or organisation who operates it, the effective aperture, operating wavelength, mirror type, website, when the telescope was first constructed,  image credit (very important and hopefully I got this right - please let me know if I haven't), and data/image source.

There are still a few features I would like to add, and eventually I would like to be able to link this to research and publication data, for example how many published papers can be attributed to each telescope. I'd also really like to add some real science images (raw and fully processed) to each telescope to give visitors a better idea of what the images look like.

In the meantime... back to work. I'll write another post in a few weeks when I add the radio telescopes.