Star at the center of a cloud of reflective gas and dust

Making Big Data Collaborative and Accessible

The Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes continues to develop as a place of active research and collaboration.

The discovery of planets outside the Solar System opened up new fields of astronomy and planetary research—and new opportunities for space buffs to get involved. Citizen scientists are crucial in helping to analyze the huge amounts of data coming in to the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), especially from survey missions like NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which collected 20 terabytes of data in its first year—the equivalent of streaming nearly 6,000 high-definition movies.

In 2019, MAST partnered with Planet Hunters TESS, the volunteer-powered Zooniverse project to develop a new service that helps users analyze TESS data for patterns that a computer algorithm might miss. The new MAST service—Planet Hunters Analysis Database (PHAD)—receives data in real time from the Planet Hunters project, as citizen scientists analyze TESS data and potential new exoplanet transits are discovered. Results from multiple citizen scientists are combined to strengthen the evidence for a potential new planet discovery.

Professional astronomers can also access PHAD and follow up on the citizen scientist research. On the PHAD website, MAST asks that the Planet Hunters team and citizen scientist volunteers are credited. Innovative collaborations like PHAD will pave the way for the future of big data astronomy and scientific use of archives like MAST. The data will only continue to get bigger, with future large-scale survey missions like NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) expected to bring in four petabytes per year, most of which will be accessed first through MAST.

Hubble Legacy Field: Galaxies Across Time

Examples of Hubble Legacy Field that capture galaxies across time
Fifteen of the 265,000 galaxies captured in the Hubble Legacy Field released by STScI in May 2019 are shown in close-up. The Legacy Field compiles 16 years of Hubble deep-sky observations in the largest and most comprehensive “history book” of galaxies ever in a single image. Hubble looked back across space and time: The galaxies pictured range from 550 million years ago to 13 billion years ago. Learn more about this view.

Collaboration and Discovery

Astronomers accessing data through MAST also contribute their own data by way of high-level science products—new ways of working with data or products of data that can be used to further other research. For example, in September 2019 a group of astronomers working in Greece, Spain, and the United States published the Hubble Catalog of Variables on MAST, the deepest catalog of variable stars, which are stars that change in brightness.

mosaic of images of the southern sky
This mosaic of the southern sky was assembled from 13 images taken by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) during its first year of science operations, completed in July 2019. All of the TESS data are available in MAST.

The Hubble Catalog of Variables spans up to 15 years of observation time. The catalog will be valuable to future astronomers as a complement to their data (i.e., what is the source of the X-ray emission at the center of this cluster?) and an aid in planning future telescope observations.

Innovation and Accessibility

MAST is a huge part of the institute’s mission of making astronomical data accessible to all. In 2019 that included the biggest astronomical data release ever—from Pan-STARRS, the world’s largest digital sky survey. More than 1.6 petabytes of Pan-STARRS data were made publicly available, 15 times the volume of the Library of Congress, containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies, full of future discoveries waiting to be made.

MAST doesn’t only provide open access to its collections, it also facilitates their use through instructional workshops. In 2019, MAST helped provide separate workshops onsite at the institute for making use of data from TESS and many other observatories, including those that observe light, gravitational waves, and particles from space.

Workshop participants were able to use programmable notebooks that were hosted online, so they could access data and programs remotely. This helped lower the barrier for entry by putting fewer constraints on astronomers’ equipment. Through efforts like these, MAST is enabling future discoveries—more and more of which will be happening within the huge data sets of its archive.