Astronomy: Surveying the Surveys

Featured Analyses, January/February 2011

By Simon Mitton

Surveys of the sky have proven to be invaluable to astronomers for many centuries. Our decadal analysis of the leading institutions active in cataloguing the universe, based on a selected extraction of some 7,500 survey reports published between 2000 and 2009, shows that this traditional area continues to have a great impact in all areas of astronomy (with the obvious exception of planetary science).

The striking feature of the table (see Tab 1 below) of institutions ranked by number of citations is that 19 of the top 25 centers are in the U.S., with three in the U.K. and one each in Germany, Japan, and Hungary. But actually that’s not so surprising because sky surveys have become a specialized enterprise requiring dedicated telescopes operating under very dark skies or in space. The first all-sky survey was made by William Herschel in England and his son John Herschel in South Africa; they worked by candlelight. The famous Palomar Sky Survey, completed in 1958, firmly established astronomers in the U.S. as the leading hunters in the cosmic zoo.

SDSS telescope
Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope.

From the Wiki Commons, public domain.

In the total-citations listing, Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University are notably prominent, the latter because it is the home base of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a project started in 2000 for mapping 25% of the sky. It uses a 2.5-meter dedicated telescope at the Apache Point Observatory, New Mexico (which is ranked third by citations and ninth by impact). SDSS has data on about 108 galaxies and quasars, and spectra of 106 objects. The survey makes its data, and associated software tools, freely available over the internet. 

In Tab 2 (below), which lists the two most-cited survey papers in each year of the decade, the annual SDSS data releases account for four of the 20 reports. Elsewhere in the institutional rankings, along with Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago and Fermilab are also Participating Institutions in the SDSS project. The SDSS "technical summary" (paper #1 for 2000), the most-cited report collected here, also helped boost the cites-per-paper marks for Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan, and Drexel University—all highly placed in the impact listing.

In observational cosmology, another survey with impact is the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey, a major spectroscopic survey undertaken at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. This provided reliable redshifts that were obtained for 221,414 galaxies. For galaxies, 2dF probes more deeply (its redshift limit is 3) than SDSS. The second-most-cited paper for 2007, for example, neatly brings together SDSS and 2dF data to measure the baryon acoustic oscillation scale, which extends our knowledge of the very early universe. Edinburgh makes it into the citation and impact rankings partly through its connection with 2dF.

The Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), coordinated at Caltech, has uniformly scanned the entire sky in three near-infrared bands. This survey uses dedicated telescopes in Arizona and Chile. This project has produced a digital sky atlas featuring 4 million extended objects, and a point source catalog of 3 x 108 stars. The final data release was made in 2003. It features in the paper listed at #1 for 2006. The institutions benefiting from citations to 2MASS are Caltech, the U.S. Naval Observatory, the University of Michigan, and the University of Arizona. 2MASS provided an unprecedented view of the Milky Way nearly free of the obscuring effects of interstellar dust. The data are much used by astrophysicists who are interested in faint stars and infrared sources in the Milky Way.

The large number of citations recorded by this analysis, and the spread of institutions, is a credit to the manner in which these data are published through general release on the internet. This common user approach has made the data available far more widely than in previous generations. It has also enabled the analysis of survey data to flourish in many centers of excellence, rather than being restricted to the observatories that made the survey in the first place. This inclusive approach, adopted for all modern surveys, has transformed the social atmosphere for its practitioners from one of competition to collaboration.End

Dr. Simon Mitton is Science Watch’sPhysics correspondent.

Click tabs above to references from the article text.

Institutions with researchers active in astronomical surveys, 2000 to 2009 (Listed by citations and citation impact)

Institution Citations
(>= 75 papers)
Johns Hopkins University    37,151   Eotvos Lorand University       146.01
Princeton University        36,750   Carnegie Mellon University        137.33
Apache Point Observatory   31,600   University of Michigan         132.39
Pennsylvania State University     29,006   Drexel University              130.62
Caltech        28,406   University of Sussex               130.56
University of Chicago 28,227   New York University             117.02
University of Arizona     26,152   University of Pittsburgh        115.47
U.S. Navy    25,713   Institute for Advanced Study     114.79
Max Planck Society 25,382   Apache Point Observatory       100.00
University of Tokyo            25,106   U.S. Navy                                     98.90
Fermilab                     24,225   University of Tokyo                 91.96
University of Washington              18,858   Los Alamos National Lab          89.66
University of Pittsburgh                   17,436   Fermilab                               87.45
Institute for Advanced Study           16,989   University of Pennsylvania      85.60
Carnegie Mellon University            16,479   Johns Hopkins University      83.67
University of Michigan              16,152   University of Nottingham 81.21
University of Edinburgh          15,131   University of Edinburgh       80.48
Ohio State University              14,568   University  of Chicago       80.19
Eotvos Lorand University             13,871   National Astron. Observ. Japan        80.16
New York University           13,808   Yale University           77.17
Space Telescope Science Inst.      12,909   Carnegie Inst. of Washington     75.46
University of Cambridge 12,557   Princeton University       73.50
Drexel University    12,278   Ohio State University         72.12
Univ. California, Berkeley                 11,953   Liverpool John Moores University 68.61
University of Sussex     11,750   University of Hawaii       67.46
SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Web of Science®.

A Decade of Survey Astronomy

Rank Year/Paper Citations
1  D.G. York, et al., "The Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Technical summary," Astron. J., 120: 1579-87, 2000.  2,133
2  B.J. Boyle, et al. "The 2dF QSO Redshift Survey. I. The optical luminosity function of quasi-stellar objects," Mon. Not. Royal Astron. Soc., 317: 1014-22, 2001 325
1  M. Colless, et al., "The 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey: Spectra and redshifts," Mon. Not Royal Astron. Soc., 328: 1039-63, 2001 747
2  R.H. Becker, et al., "Evidence for reionization at z ~ 6: Detection of a Gunn-Peterson trough in a z = 6.28 quasar," Astron. J., 122: 2850-7, 2001.  495
1  C. Stoughton, et al., "Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Early data release," Astron. J., 123: 485-548, 2002.  1,057
2  J.A. Smith, et al., "The u‘g‘r‘i’z’ standard-star system," Astron. J., 123: 2121-44, 2002.  733
1  K. Abazajian, et al., "The First Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey," Astron. J., 126: 2081-6, 2003.  503
2  G. Kauffmann, et al., "The host galaxies of active galactic nuclei," Mon. Not. Royal Astron. Soc., 346: 1055-77, 2003. 500
1  M. Tegmark, et al., "Cosmological parameters from SDSS and WMAP," Phys. Rev. D, 69: no. 103501, 2004.   1,003
2  M. Tegmark, et al., "The three-dimensional power spectrum of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey," Astrophys. J., 606: 702-40, 2004. 609
1  D.J. Eisenstein, et al., "Detection of the baryon acoustic peak in the large-scale correlation function of SDSS luminous red galaxies," Astrophys. J., 633: 560-74, 2005.  769
2  S. Cole, et al., "The 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey: Power-spectrum analysis of the final data set and the cosmological implications," Mon. Not. Royal Astron. Soc., 362: 505-34, 2005. 475
1   M.F. Skrutskie, et al., "The Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS)," Astron. J., 131: 1163-83, 2006.  997
2   P. Astier, et al., "The Supernova Legacy Survey: Measurement of Omega (M), Omega (Lambda) and w from the first year data set," Astron. Astrophys., 447: 31, 2006.    859
1  J.K. Adelman-McCarthy, et al., "The Fifth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey," Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser., 172: 634-44, 2007. 265
2  W.J. Percival, et al., "Measuring the baryon acoustic oscillation scale using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey," Mon. Not. Royal Astron. Soc., 381: 1053-66, 2007.   161
1  J.K. Adelman-McCarthy, et al., "The Sixth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey," Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser., 175: 297-313, 2008.   314  314
2  P. Marigo, et al., "Evolution of asymptotic giant branch stars. II. Optical to far-infrared isochrones with improved TP-AGB models," Astron. Astrophys., 482: 883-905, 2008. 88
1  D. Hooper, et al., "Pulsars as the source of high energy cosmic ray positrons," J. Cosmol. Astropart. P, doi: 10.1088/1475-7516/2009/01/025, 2009.  77
2  A.A. Abdo, et al., "Measurement of the Cosmic Ray e+ + e- spectrum from 20 GeV to 1 TeV with the Fermi Large Area Telescope," Phys. Rev. Lett., 102: no. 181101, 2009.  72
SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Web of Science®.


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