28_Jim Gray

Reach for the Sky

“The sky’s the limit! SkyServer is designed to be the largest map in the history of the world and to push the boundaries of computing at the same time. It’s a state-of-the-art experience that delivers astronomical data via the Web.”


Jim Gray
Distinguished engineer, Microsoft


What is the big idea?
The SkyServer provides Internet access to the public Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) data for both astronomers and for science education. Besides testing the upper limits of database algorithms and datamining performance, the website provides an elegant portal to pictures of the Northern sky from telescopes at Apache Point, New Mexico. Eventually the entire universe will be mapped and online, but currently the data from the first year of the project is available at

What was your creative spark?
As one of a handful of Distinguished Engineers at Microsoft, Jim was called upon to provide advice and leadership in making this huge collection of data available in a user friendly format on the Internet. Previous experience with the premier world mapping website ( had created a vision for creating world-record online databases. SkyServer was designed to be the largest map in the history of the world and push the boundaries of computing at the same time.

Why is the idea so compelling?
There are currently 15 or 20 million galaxies in the database. The Sloan will collect pictures of ten times that many over the next few years. If the computation wasn’t done with large main memory, it would take decades. It allows us to discover new things about datamining. The partnership between Microsoft, Compaq, Fermilab and others helped design a state-of the-art user experience to bring astronomical data to students of all ages, amateur astronomers and the general public via the web.

How or why did the innovation spread?
There was a tremendous interest from the astronomical community, incredible partnership among technology companies, and the challenge of overcoming current technology barriers in storage and user interfaces. All this with the goal of creating the first virtual telescope that could revolutionize astronomy.