Intergalactic University of Utah project helps bring the celestial sphere to your laptop
In this computer model, the OSIRIS-REx satellite is seen as it will appear on September 24, 2023, when it will pass Earth and drop a capsule containing an asteroid sample. The monster will make a parachute landing at the Utah Test and Training Range in Tooele County. (Gene Payne, OpenSpace)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Want to go to Mars? Or how about a visit to the James Webb Space Telescope? A virtual, real-time visit to these places takes place through a project of the University of Utah’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute.
The project, funded in part by NASA, will bring scientifically accurate visualizations of objects in the celestial sphere, including planets, satellites and other NASA missions.
Making space research from home possible is one of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute’s many projects. 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 to hold any kind of space content, telescopes, data from probes, missions that have been sent out, and everything from planetary scale to showing where the galaxies, the known galaxies, are in the universe,” says Gene. Payne, a research software developer at the institute.
OpenSpace is largely used by planetariums, museums, college professors, and even YouTube creators. Since it is an open source software, it is free to use and there is no telling who uses it because anyone can do it.
Chuck Hansen is the principal investigator of the project at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute. “The overarching goal of the project is to bring NASA data to the masses,” Hansen says, “to show the public what NASA is doing with their mission data.”
“It’s also part of an educational push,” Payne says.
The institute is developing OpenSpace in collaboration with the project’s other two formal partners: New York University and Linköping University in Sweden.
NASA’s invitation to participate in OpenSpace’s development came to the University of Utah, Hansen says, based on the university’s reputation for computer graphics and scientific visualization. This is where the University of Utah makes its most important contribution.
The University of Utah has “pretty good graphics history,” Payne says.
Another part of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute contribution is the addition of additional functions to the software.
Developers in the US have made it possible for OpenSpace to “read and play the (NASA) mission back in time … or play forward. We can see where a mission is at a specific time. “
“The important thing here is that there are no artist impressions,” Payne says. “Everything is scientifically correct.”
James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope, launched on Christmas Day 2021, is in orbit around the sun a million miles from the earth.
The 14,000-pound telescope always remains behind a sun shield that is 69 feet by 46 feet, or about the size of a tennis court.
This shield keeps the telescope constantly cool and is less affected by the sun’s infrared rays. This allows the telescope’s own infrared images to come back clean, Payne says.
Through OpenSpace, users can track the telescope from its location at the Lagrange point or L2. The Lagrange point is an ideal place for a telescope to orbit the sun and enjoy a balance between the gravitational forces of the sun and the earth, which helps the telescope to use as little fuel as possible.
OpenSpace users can track the telescope from launch, view the telescope unfolds his golden mirror and reach its destination. “It uses actual NASA data for positions over time. It’s the actual trajectory and where it’s going,” Payne said.
The result is the stunning images that the Hubble telescope cannot capture.
Skydiving from an asteroid to Utah
A NASA-launched satellite called OSIRIS-REx will bring a valuable payload to Tooele County in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx – or Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer – was launched in 2016 and made a rapid flight past Earth in 2017 to build up speed before going deeper into space.
His mission is a NASA first: to obtain a sample from 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 a few years in orbit, taking some debris from the asteroid’s surface. Cameras built by a team from Utah State University were: on board the satellitewhich helped navigate and land on the asteroid.
In May 2021, the OSIRIS-REx began its journey back to Earth. It will pass over Earth on September 24, 2023, when that debris will be delivered to Earth and fall from space onto the Utah Training and Test Range in Tooele County.
“There’s a bit of drama there, too. One of these earlier missions where it sent back a real monster from an asteroid, parachuted down correctly, but it hit hard and broke the bus a little bit open and contaminated the monster,” Payne said.
After the drop-off from way above Utah, ORISIS-REx embarks on an even longer mission to the asteroid Apophis.
Like many space watchers, the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute team has been looking forward to the launch of the Artemis rocket, which is a big step for the return of astronauts to the surface of the moon.
When Artemis I finally launches, the entire journey will be re-recorded on OpenSpace.
“If Artemis missions go to the moon,” Hansen says, “OpenSpace will be ready to show the details of that.”
So that trip to Mars doesn’t have to be just any flight.
“We have terrain images available, obviously for Earth, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, all the planets that we’ve flown probes or used telescopes to get images of the terrain,” Payne said.
Or, if staying closer to home is your preference, you have that option.
“We have a satellite in orbit, taking pictures of the whole world every day. … These are the 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 the: OpenSpace website.
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