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From Blurry Space to a Sharper Sky: Keeping Twenty-Three Years of Astronomical Data Alive


In compute-heavy and data-driven scientific fields, digital data play a central role in the creation of knowledge. For science fields that rely on data that can only be observed once, the preservation of these data is crucial to analytic processes. Time-domain astronomy is one such field, involving celestial observations such as exploding supernovae and passing comets. This dissertation examines the data and code practices of a university-based astronomy research group who have managed to keep their data “alive” for twenty-three years with limited resources. Keeping data alive means both understanding the knowledge contained within and having the associated technologies operable. The human aspects necessary to keep data alive are equally as important as the technological elements. This three-year ethnographic research project examines the factors involved in analyzing, preserving, and curating astronomy data as these data wend their way through socio-technical, physical, and digital infrastructures that shape and are shaped by the knowledge contained within the data. Dissertation research took place at six field sites: the case study’s university, the observatory of the case study, the archive of the observatory, and three other astronomy archives. The findings of this study show two main ways that data are kept alive in astronomy: 1) Publicly: Data are curated and preserved with the intention to be made available via web interfaces, engendering relationships among stakeholders, and 2) Privately: Data are preserved by astronomy research groups at universities that continually reuse them and their associated code, in a collaborative way. Findings suggest how a better understanding of the relationships between public and private astronomy data can inform scientific data preservation and curation practices.

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