The Databases of Astronomy: Organizing the Knowledge of the Field

If you have grown up as a member of the internet generation, you likely know your way around the web and are pretty skilled at web-searching. If you’re like me, you may also find it hard to imagine what life was like before one could summon information with a few keystrokes.

Astronomy is a field that has written records that date far back in history, much of it published in journals, books, and letters. However, only in the later part of the 20th century did the vast tomes of astronomical information meet the internet. Online tools now make it possible to access practically every paper or article ever published and visualize vast amounts of data from telescope archives. The result is an acceleration of the pace of astronomical research (to match the acceleration of the expansion of the universe…).

This post (to be updated incrementally in the future) will serve as an overview to some of the organizational tools of astronomy that astrobites authors have come to use and love. They have served us well, and, hopefully, they will serve you well too. If you know of any other services we should include, please leave a comment!

Literature Search

The workhorse of astrophysical literature searching is the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS). There is a general Google-like search entry box, but most of the time I prefer to use the ADS abstract service interface (Figure 1). There are a few main features to be aware of:

  • You can search for a paper by first-author by using the caret symbol (^) to preface the author’s last name. For example, if you wanted to search for Penzias and Wilson (the famous paper that announced the discovery of the cosmic microwave background), you would search “^penzias” on one line, and “wilson” on the next. If you happened to know the date, you could also put in “1965” as the upper limit of the date range (Figure 1). Or you could just take a good guess and say that the paper was published before 1980, and that will at least narrow your search somewhat.

Figure 1: My standard interface for searching for papers with the ADS. Use a caret (^) to search for papers which have "penzias" as the first author, ie, (^penzias). Generally, you can sufficiently limit your searches by filling in the red boxes.

  • Once you’ve performed your search and found your article, ADS has some great features you can use to find related articles. After clicking on the paper that you’re interested in (in my case, this one), you’re brought to a page including the abstract of the article. At the top of the page, there will be links to full refereed articles, and if the article is more recent, there will even be a link back to the version that was first posted on the arXiv. Say that you are embarking on a new research project, and are interested in sizing up the current state of research on your topic. Scientific publications resemble a web of knowledge stretching through time. A new paper will reference several existing papers, and these connecting citations extend back in time along the strands of the “web.” ADS allows you to surf this reference web backward and forward in time, by viewing the papers that your current paper has cited (backward) or viewing newer papers that cite this paper (forward). Navigating by citations is one way to select the important papers in the field (but not the only way). If you’re looking for a thorough overview of a subject that summarizes the current state of research, the Annual Reviews of Astronomy (ARA&A) provide comprehensive reviews.
  • Click on the link to a .PDF copy of the full refereed article to download the article and begin reading it. You can access these papers if you have a university affiliation, generally available if you are accessing the internet through the university’s internet connection, or if you are working from home, through the university’s Internet proxy. If you are not affiliated with a university that has paid access to the research journals, you can use the link back to the version of the arXiv e-print to obtain a free copy of the (generally un-refereed) paper.

Other literature search engines exist. If you are at a university that has a science/engineering library, ask to meet with a reference librarian. They will be more than happy to show you how to use your library’s system. Search engines such as Compendex, IEEE Xplore, Web of Science, and others are useful to find information on topics that might not be solely constrained to the field of astronomy, for example, instrumentation projects or interdisciplinary topics. Google Scholar might also prove useful (although it might ultimately reference ADS anyway).

Data Search

SIMBAD and the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED) are two databases that contain most of the known objects in astronomy. For example, if I wanted to find out specific information about M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, then I could search for it with SIMBAD, and call up this page. The “Aladin Previewer” feature can display several different images of the object, taken with a variety of telescopes. SIMBAD and NED provide a wealth of useful information about the object, such as the photometric fluxes, distance, redshift, morphological type, and more. Perhaps most importantly, SIMBAD also links all of these numbers back to specific references which are linked from the object’s page. NED focuses primarily on extragalactic objects, such as galaxies, galaxy clusters, and even transient objects such as supernovae.

The World Wide Telescope, run by Microsoft, is an online virtual telescope that allows you to access all publicly available astronomical images through a sleek web-client. Look for more about WWT in a future post!

Personal Organization

Once you have found them, keeping track of papers can be a daunting task in and of itself. Thankfully, several software packages are available to help you organize your papers and citations. Mendeley Desktop allows you to sync your papers to their online server, so you can access them from any computer. Papers is another personal research organizer with an iTunes-like interface. If your interested in more options, you can also browse the Wikipedia list that compares the different research packages.

Do you have a favorite online tool for organizing your research, finding papers, or searching for more information on targets? Please leave a comment!

About Ian Czekala

I am a second year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I work with Edo Berger on studying intermediate luminosity optical transients discovered with Pan-STARRS.

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  1. If you’re interested in instrumentation, another useful literature search engine is Optics InfoBase, which searches the journals of the Optical Society of America. JOSA A, Applied Optics and Optics Express regularly contain good papers, particularly on adaptive optics, atmospheric turbulence and optical manufacturing.

  2. Great post!

    Just thought I’d add my own favorite solution to personal organization, which is simply to use ADS! If you register for a (free) myADS account you can start saving articles to “private libraries.” These are simply lists of articles you create. Like with Mendeley or Papers, you can then share these lists, search the papers within them, or export a reference list in just about any format.

  3. Being a current undergrad completing a research thesis, I really thought this was a great post!

    I’d like to add one thing about paid articles:

    If you’re searching for an article on something like Google and find that you need some sort of subscription that your university doesn’t have, you can often request an inter-library loan through your campus library. This service will search other libraries that may have a copy, then email you a .pdf of the article for you to download. Very useful!

    • Definitely! Thanks for adding that, Ty. On a related note, universities often have subscriptions to the major journals with online access. I know I could get at almost anything I wanted by either using the library proxy server and searching ADS, or by going straight through the library website. Once I even checked out a hardcopy of a journal…

  4. – I still like BibDesk better than Papers:
    Especially combined with the ADS to BibDesk service:

    – ADS is brewing up something called ADS Labs

    – You can also set up Keywords in Firefox and Chrome to search ADS, SIMBAD, IRSA, etc. from your browser’s address bar. I haven’t found a good link explaining this yet, but a blog post on it is on the list…but it’s not that hard to figure out and well worth your time for you most used databases.

    • But Papers is *awesome* on the iPad…

  5. Hi Ian & all others at/near CfA interested in this topic: Do you know about the online astronomy user group Gus Muench runs here ( Are you signed up yet?!



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