Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Speaking of Science: The volunteers who help us see the solar system

Speaking of Science
Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino on Science

Intricate cloud patterns in the northern hemisphere of Jupiter, as seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)

Yesterday was tough — one of those days that started with me forgetting my coffee thermos on the kitchen counter and missing my bus and continued on through hours of writer's block and bleak news. So I did what I always do when I'm feeling cranky: I looked at space photos.

One of the first things to come up when I searched NASA's Image database was the above picture of Jupiter, taken by the Juno spacecraft and processed by Kevin Gill. I smiled as soon as I saw the photo. Not just because, holy moly, Jupiter is a looker, but because I know Gill processed that image on his own time. By day, he is a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But by night, he is one of dozens of citizen scientists who take the raw images captured by NASA spacecraft and turn them into something beautiful.

Months ago, as the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn was nearing its demise, I interviewed some of these volunteer image processors for a story I wanted to write about their unique connection to the mission. That story never came together, but the interviews were so lovely I thought I'd share them now. Whether or not you missed your bus this morning, I think we could all use a little bit of extra wonder this week.

The process begins, of course, with the spacecraft — those plucky little robots circling worlds hundreds of millions of miles from home. Instruments like the JunoCam, which flies on NASA's probe at Jupiter, take images in various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Those snapshots arrive at Earth, and are posted online, as separate grayscale images. It is the processor's job to restore color to the photos.

Cassini's last full image of Saturn. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Jason Major)

Often, the volunteer processors get to the photos before NASA's own scientists can. Jason Major, a graphic designer from Rhode Island who began processing Cassini images 2009, told me he relished being among the first people to see scenes from another planet.

"You were looking at the black and white raw spectral data that were coming in from the spacecraft, and you got to make a color image that looked like something close to what you'd see with your own eye," he said.

It was the next best thing to actually orbiting Saturn himself, he said. "That's science fiction dreams right there, except this is actual fact."

By reorienting this image of Jupiter, Jason Major turned two white storms into eyeballs. He calls this image "Jovey McJupiterface." (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)


Sophia Nasr, a doctoral student studying cosmology at U.C. Irvine, became interested in image processing last spring, at the start of the "grand finale" that would send Cassini plunging into Saturn.

"I realized, 'this is a mission that is going to come to an end really soon,'" she said. As she looked through the raw data NASA had posted online, she was seized by the desire to see those final photos for herself. So she pulled some images into photoshop and marveled as a brilliant blue polar vortex emerged.

"It was probably one of the most exciting things I got to do," she said. "I was like oh my gosh, I can do art now."

As a physicist, Nasr went one step further: When she posted the photo on Twitter, she explained how Rayleigh scattering — the same phenomenon that makes Earth's sky blue — is responsible for the peacock hue of Saturn's storm.

Often, the images that Major, Nasr and others share are "false color." Though this process does not reproduce exactly what a person might see if they were orbiting another planet, false color images can be useful to highlight certain features, or incorporate data taken in wavelengths that the human eye can't see.

"It's an expansion of what you might see with your eyes, but that doesn't make it not real," Major said.

If you're interested in processing images yourself, both Major and Nasr recommended Emily Lakdawall's tutorials for the Planetary Society. NASA uploads the latest images from JunoCam here. And if you create something you love, we'd love to share it! You can find us on Twitter at @bbguari and @sarahkaplan48.

— Sarah

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