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STScI Appoints Head of Newly Created Data Science Mission Office

Release date: Oct 21, 2016 11:00 AM (EDT)
STScI Appoints Head of Newly Created Data Science Mission Office

Dr. Arfon Smith has been selected to lead the newly created Data Science Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. The Data Science Mission Head is responsible for maximizing the scientific returns from a huge archive containing astronomical observations from 17 space astronomy missions and ground-based observatories.

Since 2013, Smith has been a project scientist and program manager at GitHub, Inc., the world's largest platform for open source software. His duties included working to develop innovative strategies for sharing data and software in academia. Smith also helped to define GitHub's business strategy for public data products, and he played a key role in establishing the company's first data science and data engineering teams.

Release ID: STScI-2016-44
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Release date: Oct 21, 2016
STScI Appoints Head of Newly Created Data Science Mission Office

Dr. Arfon Smith has been selected to lead the newly created Data Science Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. STScI is the science operations center for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in late 2018. Smith will arrive at STScI in early November.

The Data Science Mission Head is responsible for maximizing the scientific returns from a huge archive containing astronomical observations from 17 space astronomy missions and ground-based observatories. Called the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), the data facility is named in honor of Maryland U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski.

The new mission head will work closely with STScI staff to optimize the Institute's ability to help the scientific community address the big challenges of accessing and working with large, complex astronomical observations.

"I am very pleased that Dr. Smith will be joining us at STScI," said STScI Director Ken Sembach. "Our data holdings enable breakthrough science, are in high demand by the astronomical community, and are increasing rapidly. To further enable the community to tap into the tremendous science potential of this resource and the data produced by future missions such as JWST and WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope), we are consolidating our data science efforts under our new Data Science Mission Office. I am confident this will enable better service, easier access, and the creation of new high-value data products that will expand the frontiers of astrophysics."

One of Smith's main goals is to help astronomers conduct their research by streamlining and simplifying how they access the MAST archive.

"Trying to pull together decades of Hubble data, for example, is not only a data storage challenge for a researcher but also a technical challenge," Smith said. "So I think there is a huge opportunity to improve the tools and services around archival data that are available to the astronomers so that we can better empower their research. We should be helping people do the most amazing science they can possibly do."

Smith also is looking to the future, when powerful new telescopes, such as JWST and WFIRST, begin operation.

"The long-term thinking that is required to deliver a successful mission, those timescales are very different from, for example, how fast technology moves," Smith explained. "In the time Hubble has been in space, the Internet was developed and is now used by everybody. Because of these technological advances, the way science can be done has changed significantly over the lifetime of a single mission. One thing I'm keen to explore is how we can be a reliable, robust infrastructure that's always there for the astronomical community but also how we can incorporate the best technological and methodological advances happening in the community.

"In the future, major space astronomy missions will produce large, unwieldy data sets," Smith continued. "We're not going to be in a good position to do our science unless we catch up in terms of thinking about what tools and technology and approaches we can take to accommodate them."

Since 2013, Smith has been a project scientist and program manager at GitHub, Inc., the world's largest platform for open source software. His duties included working to develop innovative strategies for sharing data and software in academia. Smith also helped to define GitHub's business strategy for public data products, and he played a key role in establishing the company's first data science and data engineering teams. He received his doctorate in astrochemistry in 2006 from the University of Nottingham in Nottinghamshire, U.K.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations and is the mission and science operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.