Sloan Digital Sky Survey receives award for groundbreaking first work in science data management

The SDSS telescope.

The Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Management recently announced the recipients of the ACM SIGMOD 2021 awards. Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an ambitious sky mapping project that observed the first light in 1998 and today – after numerous upgrades – still collecting large amounts of data on celestial objects, received the 2021 ACM SIGMOD Systems Award for its “early and influential demonstration of the power of data science to transform a domain Among more than a dozen people, the award recognized the contributions of Bill Boroski, Steve Kent and Brian Yanny of Fermilab for work carried out from 2000 to 2008 on database systems developed to disseminate SDSS data. . Not only has the system demonstrated the value of data management technology, but it has also influenced data management by releasing real ch Analytical work arges that have been used to test, compare and advance data management systems.

Creation of the catalog archive server

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey was a truly collaborative effort, perhaps the first major astronomy project in the world to be planned and executed in this way. A number of institutions, including Fermilab, have developed and built the telescope and its various components and support systems. It was assembled and put into service at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

When the project entered the operational phase in 2000, data was collected at the observatory and sent overnight to Fermilab for processing. At the time, the network bandwidth was limited and did not support acceptable transfer rates between the observatory and Fermilab. To overcome this bottleneck, magnetic tapes containing night sighting data were packaged and shipped daily via overnight express.

Once at Fermilab, the data was processed and prepared for distribution. There were two channels for this distribution: the Data Archive Server, developed and managed at Fermilab, which gave access to raw and calibrated data in the form of ordinary data files; and the Catalog Archive Server – the subject of the 2021 SIGMOD Systems Award – which provided access to data through a sophisticated website and highly optimized database system. The CAS was developed at Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with academics, industry and Fermilab. Access to the CAS is available through the SkyServer web portal.

Bill Boroski, the SDSS Project Manager from 1998 to 2008, oversaw all aspects of day-to-day operations, including data distribution. He worked closely with the JHU team on the planning of each data release. It has also served as a key link between JHU, Microsoft and Fermilab.

Steve Kent was responsible for survey operations, which included defining the observation strategy to ensure that SDSS goals and objectives were met. Involved in the SDSS project from the very beginning, Kent oversaw the planning and development of almost all software associated with observation and data processing.

Brian Yanny oversaw the data processing operations at Fermilab and regularly interacted with JHU’s core development team during the development of the CAS. Yanny also has intimate knowledge of the SDSS dataset and has been instrumental in establishing the data relationships.

The SkyServer was one of the first large-scale, publicly searchable, database-supported archives available on the web. When commissioned in 2001, it served parameters to 14 million unique celestial objects in an 80 GB database from servers residing at Fermilab, in part thanks to the laboratory’s high-bandwidth network connections. SkyServer today, in its 16e incarnation 20 years later, serves the settings and images of nearly 500 million unique objects in multi-terabyte databases from a variety of university sites across the United States.

Truly a group effort

The 2021 ACM SIGMOD Systems Award represents the work and contributions of many people associated with SDSS, including a large number of people representing many areas of Fermilab, such as the Accelerator Division, the Applied Physics and Technologies Division. Superconductors, Finance, Particle Physics Division, Core and Scientific Computing Divisions, WDRS and Directorate.

On a darker note, one of the SDSS co-recipients didn’t live to see the award. Jan Vandenberg passed away in May 2021. He was a computer scientist and systems architect for all computer systems and web hosting services used at Johns Hopkins University for the SDSS project. He designed and maintained the systems used to support the development and commissioning of the CAS.

All the recipients received a plaque as well as an honorarium of $ 5,000 to be shared collectively. They all agreed to send the honorarium to the Vandenberg family.

Fermilab is supported by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

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