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Fourth Annual Planetary Data Workshop

Researchers gathered at the Planetary Data Workshop in Flagstaff last week.

Students aren’t the only ones who share their notes to improve performance; more than 150 planetary data specialists gathered in Flagstaff last week to do just that.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center hosted the Fourth Annual Planetary Data Workshop to allow international researchers to share progress in ongoing planetary missions and the archives used to store that data.

According to NASA’s Dan Crichton, manager of the Center for Data Science and Technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these archives are a challenge to create and maintain because they can store up to 4,000 types of data.

To manage these complexities, scientists from all over the world gathered to discuss their progress, especially within NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS) and its younger cousin the Planetary Science Archive (PSA), created by the European Space Agency (ESA).

These two archives, and the space agencies they represent, are related through the International Planetary Data Alliance; though different in age and size, creators of these two archives work together to improve their ongoing mission.

Christophe Arviset, head of ESA’s Data and Engineering Division, said the objectives of planetary archives are to support scientific discoveries and to preserve data for the long term to allow even later discoveries.

“We measure the success of a mission by the number of scientific papers which are being published in the literature. Future scientists will have new ways of exploring the data to make discoveries, so that’s why we want to preserve this data long-term,” Arviset said.

The current version of the PSA is now 15 years old. Though it existed several years before that in print form, Arviset said the archive was digitized in the early 2000s preceding a surge in ESA planetary missions.

Much like a teenager, it has room to grow to catch up with its American counterpart, though.

The cartography and imaging services section of NASA’s archive has been hosted by the USGS in Flagstaff since the 1980s. It is the largest data archive within the PDS, containing about 1.5 petabytes of data, where each petabyte equals just over a thousand terabytes.

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Lisa Gaddis is the principal investigator of the Flagstaff-based archive, one of the oldest planetary science archives. She said the expansion of this data has happened within the last decade due to new technologies in ongoing planetary missions like the Mars Odyssey, an orbiting spacecraft that can see details the size of a car on the surface of the Red Planet.

“In the 1990s, all of the missions together were probably less than 500 GB of data, what you could now put on a single thumb drive. We now have those high volume missions that we’re supporting and other nations are catching up fast. Through the IPDA, they are taking [NASA’s] newest data standards and moving forward rapidly with those,” Gaddis said.

The PSA currently holds 73 terabytes of data from eight different planetary missions like the Mars Express, Europe’s first Red Planet orbiter. It uses the same file formats as NASA, which have become the standard, to make this data available to all researchers regardless of nationality.

The goal for both archives is to become even more accessible and user-friendly in the coming years.

Making use of online data storage – the cloud – will play a big role in this by allowing researchers to study files without downloading them.

“In the past, when scientists wanted to analyze the data, they had to go to the archive and download the data and use it to write their paper. Tomorrow, the data is going to be so big, they will not be able to download it all. There is a paradigm shift that is happening that will enable the user to work directly with the data at the archive,” Arviset said.

This allows members of the public to access the data just as easily.

NASA and ESA are continuing to share techniques in how this data is stored, labeled and organized to better serve the scientific and general communities, which could soon incorporate even newer technologies.

“We are in the midst of several revolutions in how we store and access data. Like people are finding in other fields, artificial intelligence is needed. You can’t just have humans looking at and analyzing all the data, because there’s so much of it now. We need new methods to store them, to process them, to make them available to users in a form they can use,” Gaddis said.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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