The first virtual observatory to receive significant funding will be a European project called ASTROVIRTEL, which is based at the ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany. European astronomers will be able to apply for grants from the European Commission to analyse the archive, which will include data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the New Technology Telescope (NTT), the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) and Hubble.

In the US the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore has pioneered easy-to-use software for accessing the Hubble archive, and is also the centre for all NASA's near-infrared, optical and ultraviolet observations. This means that it now holds the largest archive of observational data in the world. The institute also provides research grants for academics interested in archival research. "It has been extremely successful," says Melissa McGrath from STScI. "Even if the telescope comes down in 2010, the HST data archive is going to be a fantastic resource for many years to come."

The success of the project has led to a new initiative called the National Virtual Observatory that will merge the largest archives -- such as those from the 2-micron Survey at Caltech, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the new Palmer Sky Survey and Hubble -- into a single digital resource. The archive will also be open to amateur astronomers. "The potential for amateur astronomers to carry out serious research will increase with these archives," says McGrath. "I hope they just jump in and publish."