Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: Alberto Conti

Curiosity: An Augmented Reality Experience

July 26, 2012 by Alberto Conti
NASA's Spacecraft 3D is an augmented reality (AR) application that lets you learn about and interact with a variety of spacecraft that are used to explore our solar system, study Earth, and observe the universe.

NASA's Spacecraft 3D is an augmented reality application that lets you learn about and interact with a variety of spacecraft.

Over the past 30 years, many of us have enjoyed entertaining and challenging video games. Do you remember the classic Pong? Space Invaders? Playing games is an important part of life, after all.

The number of transistors in modern computers has increased over 2 billion times since the late 70s. As a result, computing power has increased by more than six orders of magnitude (2 million times) and has made possible the technological revolution we are living in today.

Today, we can play even very complex video games on our smart phones. However, to me the most remarkable development is how much more photo-realistic computer graphics have become. It will not be long before it will be hard to tell the difference between artificial and real landscapes.

As the barriers of photo-realism rapidly drop, our expectations of possible interactions with machines rise. Old preconceptions about where our reality ends and where a virtual reality starts are rapidly changing. Commercially available 3D televisions are quickly adding a third dimension to our viewing experience, but lately a new trend has emerged: augmented reality. This new technology seems to finally successfully blur the line between what’s real and what’s computer-generated by enhancing what we see, hear, and perhaps soon feel and smell. Augmented reality is basically starting to integrate all available pixels on all your devices into real-world environments.

Augmented reality isn’t the fully immersive, completely computer-generated environment produced by virtual reality; instead it’s an at-times-subtle augmentation of your real world. Augmented reality adds graphics, sounds, and visual feedback to the natural world as seen from your own device’s camera. Google’s Project Glass is an example of what we can expect to see in just a few years.

It comes as no surprise that this augmented reality movement is strongly driven by the game and smart phone markets, which after all control most of the pixels we have access to on a daily basis. The end game is to fundamentally change the way we perceive our world by giving our own senses access to information available only to machines.

On July 11, NASA entered the augmented reality arena for smart phones by releasing an augmented application that brings some of the agency’s robotic spacecraft to life in 3-D on iPhone and iPads. Spacecraft 3D is a simple application that allows anyone with an iPhone or iPad (Android version coming soon) to experience a three-dimensional model of NASA’s spacecrafts in high definition.

In this first iteration, Spacecraft 3D showcases the Mars Science Laboratory rover (also known as Curiosity) which is scheduled to make it’s incredible landing on the surface of Mars on August 5. So, grab the app and get familiar with the rover on a virtual desktop near you.

SKA: The Sound of Data

July 6, 2012 by Alberto Conti
Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

SKA is coming. No it’s not the Jamaican music genre of the late 50s, even if it might sound like music to radio astronomers’ ears. SKA is the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope currently in development. SKA is set to revolutionize radio astronomy, perhaps in the way the Hubble Space Telescope did for the visible-light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

SKA, as the name implies, will be able to collect radio waves over approximately one square kilometer or a million square meters. The signal from thousands of antennas spread over about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) will work together as one gigantic, virtual instrument capable of extremely high sensitivity and resolution, continuing radio astronomy’s tradition of providing the highest-resolution images in all astronomy. Coupled with its operational frequencies, SKA’s sheer size will make it 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster at surveying the sky than any other radio telescope currently in existence. In addition, thanks to new technological advances, SKA will even enable multiple users to observe different pieces of the sky simultaneously!

This amazing instrument is being designed to address some of the most pressing questions in astrophysics, fundamental physics, cosmology and particle astrophysics:

  • When and how were the first stars formed?
  • What is the nature of dark energy and dark matter?
  • What and where are the conditions for life?
  • Was Einstein correct about General Relativity?
  • Where does cosmic magnetism come from?

The James Webb Space Telescope will also address some of these questions, and astronomers are already thinking about how these two observatories can be used together to provide deeper insight into cosmic objects. With such broad scientific objectives, SKA has the potential of truly transforming the exploration of the universe at radio wavelengths. However, the astronomical community faces huge challenges stemming from its construction and from the sheer volume of data it is expected to produce.

To maximize the potential for new discoveries, SKA needed to find a suitable site. The southern hemisphere of our planet seemed an ideal place given its minimal radio interference, and last month a split decision was announced by the SKA organization members — Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK — to build core receivers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia and New Zealand will host its core site at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, with the most distant stations located in New Zealand. South Africa will host another core site located about 75 km north-west of Carnarvon, with distant stations in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. Each site in Australia and South Africa will host SKA arrays at increasing distances and decreasing density. The densest region, known as the core, will contain approximately half of the total collecting area of the SKA arrays in a circle of just over 3 miles in diameter (about 5 km). A mid-region extending to about 112 miles (180 km) from the core will host arrays placed randomly at an ever-decreasing density from the center. Finally, an outer region extending to about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) from the core will comprise five spiral arms along which dishes, grouped into stations of 20, will be located. The separation of the stations increases towards the outer ends of the spiral arms in a pattern, borrowed from nature, which maximizes spatial coverage (see how and why in this great talk by Dr. Rick White).

Layout of the SKA antennas on the ground. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Layout of the SKA antennas on the ground. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

The first phase of construction will take place from 2016 to 2019, with the goal of providing about 20 percent of the total collecting area at low and mid frequencies. This will ensure that SKA can start operating well before full construction is complete. The rest of the construction will be finished by 2024.

However, there is another dimension to the challenge that is SKA. Such a large number of arrays (potentially up to 4,000), with the need to sample celestial phenomena at ever increasing spatial and temporal resolution, will require very high performance central computing engines and a capacity that rivals the current global Internet traffic. In fact, once the raw data is processed, SKA will be able to produce in a single year an amount of data comparable to all the traffic of the entire Internet in 2011!

This is entirely new territory. This huge increase in scale requires a revolutionary approach — not only to traditional radio telescope design, but also to data storage and handling technologies, and computational resources.

SKA will require numerous advances in computing technology:

  • Computers capable of 1,000 more computations per second than current supercomputers
  • Software that mimics the behavior of our brain with millions of connections and billions of computations
  • Improvement in power efficiency to allow large number of machines to run at full capacity constantly

SKA’s future therefore hinges on the project’s ability to forges partnerships with both research and industry leaders in high-performance computing. The payoff for industrial partners seems obvious: an ideal test bed for systems that process large volumes of data from geographically dispersed sources with extreme energy requirements. The hope is that SKA’s spinoffs will spur technology development in areas like high-performance computing and large data-storage warehouses, but also renewable energy generation.

Let the music start: SKA!

Dragon’s Lair

June 5, 2012 by Alberto Conti
Maneuvering Dragon to the docking port of the International Space Station. CREDIT: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

Maneuvering Dragon to the docking port of the International Space Station. CREDIT: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

On the tail of my last post about Planetary Resources’ goal of mining asteroids, last week I was reminded on three separate occasions of the excitement I often feel when thinking (and dreaming) of our place in the universe. It’s a remarkable time.

First, on May 20 (May 21 in in the Eastern Hemisphere), a spectacular annular solar eclipse took place. Such an eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, partially obscuring the image of the Sun for lucky observers here on Earth. The key word here is “partially.” In these types of eclipses, the Moon is unable to completely cover the surface of the Sun, leaving an annulus known as the Ring of Fire. Fortunately, even if I was not one of the lucky ones to view the event in person (the eclipse was not visible from the East Coast of the United States), an abundance of live feeds on the Internet allowed me to truly feel part of the action.

Then, on May 25, the board of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Organization convened in Amsterdam to announce their final decision on the site that will host the SKA radio telescope. This decision was important for astronomy in that SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built. The decision was an anticlimactic tie, in that SKA antennas will be hosted both in South Africa and Australia, but this was somehow expected. SKA is big science with the potential of big discoveries, and many wanted to be part of it.

I will come back to SKA in an upcoming post, given that in this case big science truly means big data as well.

Finally, a Dragon ran from Earth but was captured by the International Space Station (ISS). Just when many of us looked with apprehension at a future without reusable vehicles like the Space Shuttle, and thought that exploration had effectively been put on hold, NASA sanctioned a commercial company to deliver “groceries and supplies” to the ISS, thereby opening the door for a viable commercialization of space. The successful mission of the unmanned cargo capsule, named Dragon, could potentially be a game changer, particularly if companies like SpaceX will initially take the role that FedEx on Earth has assumed for our personal packages. However, in light of Planetary Resources’ announcement, I believe many companies are now on a trajectory that will put them at the forefront of space exploration: delivering packages is just a required stepping-stone. SpaceX needs to learn how to dock before it can plan on orbiting another planetary body.

Most of the success of companies like SpaceX is due to the remarkable ingenuity and entrepreneurship of people who simply never stopped dreaming about space. A few individuals, after having made a fortune in business, are now turning to their “hobby.” Luckily for all of us, their hobby is the exploration of space. This is indeed the case for Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX. He co-designed one of the first viable electric cars of the modern era, the Tesla Roadster, he co-founded what is now the world’s largest Internet payment system, PayPal, and he built SpaceX, the first commercial space company able to send its own capsule to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has effectively opened a new era for private spaceflight after the end of the 30-year U.S. shuttle program. I think this maiden flight and docking to the ISS will someday be recognized as a historic event, even if only for the potential to inspire others to reach further in our planetary neighborhood.

Elon Musk is only 40 years old, and if the past is any indication about his capabilities of turning ideas into products (SpaceX was founded just 10 years ago), I expect to see a big push in the coming years for a much bigger mission: Mars, within his lifetime.

It’s starting to feel like the early 60s all over again: a time where anything in space seemed possible!

Mining Asteroids? Why Not!

May 3, 2012 by Alberto Conti
The asteroid Eros

The asteroid Eros

Last week, a new company entered the increasingly crowded market for private space exploration and exploitation. Planetary Resources‘ goal is to “establish a new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence.” This ambitious mission statement is backed up by “visionaries, pioneers, rocket scientists and industry leaders with proven track records on — and off — this planet.”

Among the founders of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, who is very well known is space circles for many ambitious and successful undertakings. Perhaps the most well-known is the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan for SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-governmental, piloted spacecraft. However, it is perhaps not as well known that Peter is also the co-founder of the International Space University (ISU): “an international institution of higher learning, dedicated to the development of outer space for peaceful purposes through international and multidisciplinary education and research programs.”

I was privileged to be part of the ISU summer programs in Barcelona (1994) as a student, and in Stockholm (1995) as a teaching assistant. As one of the 180 or so students in Barcelona, I worked on an intense, nine-week course for postgraduate students and professionals. The course tackled space-related disciplines that covered astrophysics, space policy and law, life sciences and more. Our final product was a Solar System Exploration Design Project, in which we ran thought experiments on how we should colonize and explore our own solar system. We developed mission concepts for lunar probes, comet sample returns, missions to the outer planets, and even the search for life!

Of particular relevance to the announcement by Planetary Resources was our Near Earth Asteroid Mission. Our mission statement — remember this was 1994 — was to “affirm the relevance of solar system exploration to human society using a smaller, cheaper, and faster science mission to evaluate the resource and hazard potential of small near-Earth asteroids.” Even back then, young professionals thought that investigating Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) was a rather promising idea.

Scientifically, NEOs represent the remnants from the early formation of our own solar system. As such, their physical, chemical and geological properties hold clues to the origin and evolution of our solar system. However, from a resource potential, NEOs are truly remarkable. Unlike on Earth, where heavier metals sink to the core, metals in NEOs are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract. They contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

Some NEOs could even be the remnants of extinct comet nuclei and therefore contain large quantities of water ice and other volatiles under a thin shell of silicate dust.

So how would you built a mission to rendezvous and orbit an NEO in preparation for full-scale mining? In our project, we identified three possible mission scenarios, in order of increasing complexity:

  • Flyby — short observation time, but ideal for quick reconnaissance
  • Rendezvous — long observations time, ample opportunity to study composition and landing sites
  • Contact/Penetrator Probe — direct sampling of internal composition

Each mission would be equipped with cameras for determining size, shape, rotation and surface features; X-ray and Gamma-ray spectrometers to inspect surface and near-surface elemental composition; infrared reflectance spectral mappers for detailed mineralogical composition; and a number of other desirable instruments such as magnetometers, altimeters, dust collectors, mass spectrometers, etc.

Our design was inspired by the Clementine mission, which flew in 1994, and tested advanced sensors and spacecraft components under extended exposure to the harsh space environment during observations of the Moon. (The project was named Clementine after the song “Oh My Darling, Clementine” as the spacecraft would be “lost and gone forever” following its mission.)

Clementine was only a partial success; its planned flyby of an NEO did not take place due to an instrument malfunction. However, many of the technologies and techniques used by Clementine to obtain high-resolution images of our Moon, using innovative ideas and with limited costs, helped the development of later solar system observatories.

It is now almost two decades later, and the landscape of space exploration has changed. NASA is starting to partner with the private sector to enable new initiatives in support of its 50-year-old mission. At the same time, innovative entrepreneurs are seeking to capitalize on the convergence of cheap and reliable technologies for mining operations, which, for the first time in our history, will be located on a different solar system body than our own.

The time seems to be favorable for the exploitation of resources well beyond our immediate atmosphere. This race will undoubtedly produce a cascade of products and ideas focused on enabling our species to explore our immediate planetary neighborhood.

Let the race begin!

Data Exhaust

April 12, 2012 by Alberto Conti
The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) unveiled a myriad galaxies in 1995.

The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) unveiled a myriad galaxies in 1995.

Scientists in general, and astronomers in particular, have been at the forefront when it comes to dealing with large amounts of data. These days, the “Big Data” community, as it is known, includes almost every scientific endeavor — and even you.

In fact, Big Data is not just about extremely large collections of information hidden in databases inside archives like the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. Big Data includes the hidden data you carry with you all the time in now-ubiquitous smart phones: calendars, photographs, SMS messages, usage information and records of our current and past locations. As we live our lives, we leave behind us a “data exhaust” that tells something about ourselves.

Does the universe contain some hidden data, data that is there in plain sight but has yet to be investigated? If so, what’s in the cosmos’ data exhaust?

In late 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope took hundreds of exposures of a seemingly empty patch of sky near the constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). The Hubble Deep Field (HDF), as it is known, uncovered a mystifying collection of about 3,000 galaxies at various stages of their evolution. Most of the galaxies were faint, and from them we began to learn a story about our Universe that had not been told before.

At the time, I was a young graduate student at the Ohio State University. I still remember very vividly how mesmerized I was by what our universe was telling us with just one image. I remember calculating the approximate total number of galaxies in the visible universe, assuming that the HDF was a representative patch of our universe: 100 billion. I ended up using that image for my first paper as a graduate student, looking for distant quasars in the HDF.

The HDF represented a tremendous achievement for science in ways that are still reverberating today. It initiated one of the many legacies of the Hubble Telescope: deep images showing infant galaxies in the early universe.

However, the HDF was also instrumental for a generation of young astronomers in another significant way. For the first time, an observation was deemed so important in order to address basic questions about the structure and evolution of the universe that it needed to be made available immediately to the astronomical community around the world. This, as well as the underlying science, was a game changer. Typically observations are released to the astronomical community after a proprietary period — typically 6 months or a year. This gives the astronomers who requested the observation time to perform their investigations. In this case, the HDF team took the unusual step of both swiftly preparing the observations for scientific study and releasing them without delay, thus allowing students and researchers alike to dive immediately into the science of the observation. The success of this decision paved the way for future observations to be released with similar speed.

So was the HDF unique? Were we just lucky to observe a crowded but faint patch of sky? To address this question, and determine if indeed the HDF was a “lucky shot,” in 2004  Hubble took a million-second-long exposure in a similarly “empty” patch of sky: The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). The result was even more breathtaking. Containing an estimated 10,000 galaxies, the HUDF revealed glimpses of the first galaxies as they emerge from the so-called “dark ages” — the time shortly after the Big Bang when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe. As with the HDF, the HUDF data was made immediately available to the community, and has spawned hundreds of publications and several follow-up observations.

Many more examples exist of “deep fields,” and in all cases it seems that if we look closely at an unobserved portion of our universe we discover more and more of its “data exhaust,” pointing us to the signatures of its origin.

The Hubble Deep Field started a revolution in the way we look at our universe but also in the way we access information. This trend exists to this day. Just a few days ago the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released the widest deep view of the sky ever made using infrared light. Once again an unremarkable patch of sky comes to life and reveals more than 200,000 galaxies!

This trend is not about to end. Over the next decade, astronomy will undergo dramatic changes. Missions like the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be able to survey the whole sky in just a few days, creating a 3D map of the universe. I personally cannot wait to see what we will find!

Taming the Data

March 12, 2012 by Alberto Conti
Artist's concept of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX)

Artist's concept of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX)

My name is Alberto Conti and I am an astrophysicist and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Innovation Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). I’ve been at STScI since 2003.

I am going to use these posts to tell you a little bit about my interests, what inspires me and makes me come to work daily. In doing so, I will try to underscore how science in general, and astronomy in particular, has changed over the course of my lifetime in ways that still amaze me.

I came to STScI to contribute to the development of the archive for the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) mission. As a space mission, GALEX was unique in many ways. GALEX brought us the first detailed look at the entire sky in ultraviolet light, a range of radiation just above the shortest wavelengths visible to the human eye. Led by the California Institute of Technology, GALEX conducted several first-of-a-kind surveys, contributing significantly to our understanding of the processes that give raise to galaxy formation and evolution. One of GALEX’s main goals was to analyze ultraviolet light from millions of distant galaxies, thereby providing key evidence for the history of star formation over 10 billion years of cosmic history — or about 70 percent of the life of our universe.

All data collected by GALEX is stored at STScI in Multimission Archive (MAST), which is NASA’s optical and ultraviolet data archive. MAST’s primary focus is to support the astronomical community by providing access tools to sets of data, or “datasets,” in the optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. MAST currently hosts data for over 20 missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler terrestrial planet finder telescope, and GALEX.

I have always been fascinated with how astronomical data is collected, stored, retrieved, visualized, and used to understand the properties of our universe or discover new, exciting ones. Over the past 25 years, astronomers have become much more efficient at collecting photons from distant galaxies with larger mirrors in space and on the ground. However, our ability to build larger telescopes has been outshined by the exponential growth of detectors. Thanks to advances in detector technology, a relatively small telescope like GALEX, for instance, was able to collect data on over 200 million ultraviolet sources.

As a result, astronomical data doubles every two years or so, and profound changes have occurred in the astronomical community as a result. While I had worked with moderately large datasets during my postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh, GALEX was where my love (most would say obsession) for data really began.

Storing information on details such as brightness, size, distance, color and many, many other items for over 200 million GALEX sources required detailed planning. Imagine a spreadsheet with more than 200 million rows and 300 columns, and you’ll have an idea of the task at hand. Developing the tools to search, retrieve and visualize this data was only possible with the dedicated work of the whole MAST GALEX team. I look back at my time on GALEX as a very exciting part of my life. It seemed that our team was making data discovery possible, enabling the mining of millions of objects in a matter of seconds.

It was during this time that I learned about databases, data mining technologies, data visualization techniques, and the importance of preserving the integrity of the data for the community. Many of the lessons learned during this time still guide my judgment when thinking about the next generation data archives for JWST. I’ll elaborate on this in my future posts.

Astronomy is an elegant science because each instrument we use to reveal the nature of our universe is nothing but a small piece of a larger puzzle we are all working on. This is true for GALEX. As a mission it would not have been as successful if it were not for its surveying capabilities, which represent a great complement to other space-based missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, but also for ground-based surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at optical wavelengths.

I use GALEX data to this day looking for transient object (object whose properties change over time), hot white dwarfs, and quasars in a long-standing collaboration with Johns Hopkins University astronomer Luciana Bianchi. I feel very privileged to be able to work in field so intellectually and professionally rewarding, but mostly I feel humbled to have the teammates I have, starting with my GALEX friends.

More about me:
Wikipedia: Alberto Conti