A Utah Intergalactic University project helps bring the celestial sphere to your laptop
This computer model shows what the OSIRIS-REx satellite will look like on September 24, 2023, when it will pass by Earth and drop a capsule containing a sample from the asteroid. The sample will land by parachute at the Utah Test and Training Range in Tooele County. (Gene Payne, OpenSpace)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Do you want to go to Mars? Or how about a visit to the James Webb Space Telescope? A real-time virtual visit to these places is taking place through a project at the University of Utah’s Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging.
The project, funded in part by NASA, provides scientifically accurate visualizations of objects in the celestial sphere, including planets, satellites and other NASA missions.
Enabling space exploration from home is one of many projects at the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging. The institute contributes to the development of an open source software program called OpenSpace. This downloadable program allows anyone to track the trajectory and location of numerous objects in space in real time or in the past and future.
“It’s a very open framework for being able to show any kind of space content, telescopes, data from probes, missions that have been sent and anything from planetary scale to showing where galaxies are, known galaxies are in space,” says Gene Payne, research software developer at the institute.
OpenSpace is mostly used by planetariums, museums, college professors, and even YouTube creators. Since the software is open source, it is free to use and there is no telling who is using it because anyone can.
Chuck Hansen is the project’s principal investigator at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute. “A key goal of the project is to bring NASA data to the masses,” says Hansen, “to show the public what NASA is doing with their mission data.”
“It’s also part of an educational effort,” Payne says.
The institute is developing OpenSpace in cooperation with two other formal partners of the project: New York University and Linköping University in Sweden.
NASA’s invitation to join the development of OpenSpace came to the University of Utah, Hansen says, based on the university’s reputation in computer graphics and scientific visualization. This is where the University of Utah makes its major contribution.
The University of Utah has “a pretty good history in graphics,” Payne says.
Another part of the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging’s contribution is adding additional features to the software.
Developers in the United States enabled OpenSpace to “read and play a (NASA) mission back in time… or play it forward. We can see where the mission is, at a certain time.”
“The really important thing here is that there’s no rendering of the artist’s impression,” says Payne. “Everything is scientifically correct.”
The James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope, launched on Christmas Day 2021, is in solar orbit a million miles from Earth.
The 14,000-pound telescope always stays behind a solar shield that is 69 feet by 46 feet, or about the size of a tennis court.
This shield keeps the telescope constantly cool and less affected by the sun’s infrared rays. This allows the telescope’s own infrared images to be clean, Payne says.
Through OpenSpace, users can monitor the telescope from its location at the Lagrange point, or L2. The Lagrange point is an ideal location for a telescope orbiting the Sun and enjoying the balance of the gravitational forces of the Sun and Earth, allowing the telescope to use minimal fuel.
OpenSpace users can track the telescope since launch, view the telescope opens his golden mirror and reaches its destination. “It uses real NASA data for positions in time. It’s a real trajectory and where it’s going,” Payne said.
The result is stunning pictures that the Hubble telescope does not have imaging capabilities.
Parachuting from an asteroid to Utah
One NASA-launched satellite, called OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled to drop a valuable payload into Tooele County in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx — or Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — launched back in 2016 and made a quick flyby of Earth in 2017 to build up speed before heading deeper into space.
Its mission is NASA’s first: to acquire a sample of an asteroid and return the sample to Earth.
The target was Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid. The satellite reached Bennu in 2018, where it spent several years in orbit and picked up some debris from the asteroid’s surface. The cameras, built by a team at Utah State University, were on the satellitewho helped navigate and land on the asteroid.
In May 2021, OSIRIS-REx began its journey back to Earth. It will pass Earth on September 24, 2023, when the debris will be delivered to Earth and dropped from space at the Utah Training and Test Range in Tooele County.
“There’s a bit of drama there. One of these previous missions where he was bringing back a real sample from an asteroid, parachuted right, but he hit hard and kind of cracked the canister and contaminated the sample,” Payne said.
After landing far above Utah, ORISIS-REx will begin an even longer mission to the asteroid Apophis.
Like many space watchers, the team at the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging was looking forward to the launch of the Artemis rocket, a big step for return of astronauts to the surface of the moon.
When Artemis I is eventually launched, the entire journey will be re-recorded on OpenSpace.
“When the Artemis missions go to the moon,” says Hansen, “OpenSpace will be ready to show the details of that.”
So for that trip to Mars, it doesn’t have to be just a flyover.
“We have terrain images available, obviously for Earth, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, all the planets that we’ve flown past with probes or used telescopes to get terrain images,” Payne said.
Or, if your preferred travel plan is to stay closer to home, you have that option.
“We have a satellite in orbit around the Earth, every day it’s imaging the entire globe … These are actual cloud formations as they existed yesterday,” Payne said.
You can learn more about the OpenSpace project and download the latest version of the software at OpenSpace website.
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