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Emily LakdawallaJanuary 5, 2016

It's your data: Curating NASA's science treasures

One of the great things about NASA is that all the data returned from all of the missions all over the solar system belong to you, the public. A good chunk of what I write about at this blog depends upon NASA's public data archives, the Planetary Data System, or PDS. By sharing all of the data with the world, NASA enables amateurs and professionals alike to make the most of every precious data bit returned from space. It's not just the raw bits that NASA makes available, either. This morning, while responding to a NASA solicitation requesting community input to the future of the Planetary Data System, I found a summary of NASA's mandate to share the results of robotic exploration with the public that made me realize how broad NASA's activities really are. I'm not sure that all of you readers share my enthusiasm for the nitty gritty details of the infrastructure of NASA, but I think it's important to recognize the organizations that make it possible for us to enjoy what NASA does, and I thought at least a few of you might enjoy learning more about these efforts.

Highlights from the January 1, 2010 Cassini ISS PDS release

NASA / JPL / SSI / montage by Emily Lakdawalla

Just some data

The Planetary Data System archives all NASA data and curates it to enable the public to make use of it. All these images were released to the public through the Planetary Data System on January 1, 2010.

The solicitation explained that the Planetary Data System is just one of four NASA-funded organizations that disseminate the fruits of our robotic planetary exploration, and I'd never looked at the four organizations as part of a single effort before. The other three organizations provide access to returned samples; provide a clearinghouse for data tracking all the wandering bodies in our solar system; and provide the base maps on which we plot all of our pretty science.

To begin with, here's the background the solicitation provided on the Planetary Data System:

The Planetary Data System (PDS) archives electronic data products from NASA planetary missions (as well as some ground-based and laboratory data sets), sponsored by NASA's Science Mission Directorate. It actively manages the archive to maximize its usefulness. All PDS-curated products are stored in a well-defined format, peer-reviewed, well-documented, and available online to scientists and to the public. The PDS recently completed a competitive selection for the scientific Discipline Nodes and that system now includes the Ring-Moon Systems and Cartography and Imaging Sciences Nodes.

The Ring-Moon Systems node, run by the SETI Institute, was formerly known as just the Rings Node; the change in nomenclature reflects the fact that rings and moons are inextricable, and that the Rings Node indexes data of all kinds from missions like Cassini, Galileo, Hubble, and Voyager, which studied moons and planets as well as rings. The Cartography and Imaging Sciences Node was formerly just the Imaging Node, hosted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; their name change reflects way that imaging data is increasingly being used as map data through geographic information systems, which are developed and hosted at the United States Geologic Survey. Though most people still refer to it as just the Imaging Node, there are lots of new cartographic tools available to turn images into maps. The other PDS nodes cover Atmospheres, Geosciences, Navigation, Plasma, and Small Bodies. All host NASA data in slightly different ways, serving their different scientific communities and the public.

Another organization responsible for sharing NASA materials with the public is the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, "whose goal is to protect, preserve, and distribute samples for study from the Moon, Mars, and interplanetary space in support of solar system exploration." Based at Johnson Space Center, the Astromaterials office curates everything from Apollo Moon rocks, to meteorites collected on Earth, to samples returned by Stardust, Genesis, and Hayabusa, and even bits of hardware that have spent time in space. Unlike the other three NASA organizations mentioned in this post, which disseminate only electronic data or reprintable documents, the Astromaterials office handles unique, irreplaceable, physical materials from space and makes them available to the public. It's not just for scientific researchers; schools and universities can request to borrow samples or thin sections for educational use, too. If you don't need to actually handle samples, you can download photos taken by the curators. They also maintain a database of the nearly 20,000 Antarctic meteorites collected since 1978.

Another organization that provides a public resource for dissemination of solar system data is the Minor Planet Center. The Minor Planet Center is operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union, and is funded by a grant from NASA. The Minor Planet Center describes itself:

The Minor Planet Center, or MPC, is the single worldwide location for receipt and distribution of positional measurements of minor planets, comets and outer irregular natural satellites of the major planets. The MPC is responsible for the identification, designation and orbit computation for all of these objects. This involves maintaining the master files of observations and orbits, keeping track of the discoverer of each object, and announcing discoveries to the rest of the world via electronic circulars and an extensive website.

(You might notice that the MPC is responsible for keeping tabs on "outer irregular natural satellites" but not inner, regular natural satellites, or indeed the planets themselves. Who keeps track of those? That's actually performed for NASA and the public by the Navigation Node of the Planetary Data System, which also maintains information on spacecraft trajectories, but in practice, most people who need to track moons and planets do so through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Solar System Dynamics group's online tools. But I digress.)

The fourth group that organizes and curate NASA-derived information is the United States Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center, "whose mission includes producing planetary maps and cartographic products that reveal topography, geology, topology, image mosaics, and more, all made available to the international scientific community and the general public as a national resource." Where the Planetary Data System stores the data that come back from missions, the Astrogeology Science Center stores products based upon manipulation and interpretation of that data. (At least that's how I used to draw the distinction; now that the Imaging Node has become the Cartography and Imaging Science Node and is hosted by the Astrogeology Science Center, that boundary has blurred.) There are tools to generate base maps for geologic investigations of worlds across the solar system. There are photo maps and geologic maps drawn on those kinds of base maps. There are other kinds of interpreted data too; poke around and you can find a database of Martian sand dunes or of changes on Mars.

All four of these organizations -- Planetary Data System, Astromaterials office, Minor Planet Center, and Astrogeology Science Center -- are primarily designed to serve scientists, but they do so in a way that serves the public more broadly. In fact, they really don't draw a distinction between professional scientists and the general public, and I think that's one of the greatest things about NASA. Moreover, because NASA shares all this publicly, it's shared not just with Americans but with the entire world, even all of those nations that don't have their own space programs. All you need is unfettered access to the Internet.

The way NASA shares the fruits of its scientific missions allows all of us to be scientists. Some of us non-professionals, like many in the amateur image processing community, interact with NASA data just for fun; others, like the amateur astronomers who contribute their observations to the Minor Planet Center, make direct contributions to science. Everybody wins!

Read more: explaining science

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

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