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Utah Intergalactic University project helps bring the celestial sphere to your laptop

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In this computer model, the OSIRIS-REx satellite is seen as it will appear on September 24, 2023, when it will pass close to Earth and drop a capsule containing a sample of an asteroid. The sample will make a parachute landing at the Utah Test and Training Range in Tooele County. (Gene Payne, Open Space)

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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 tour of these locations is underway as part of a project by the University of Utah’s Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging.

The project, funded in part by NASA, brings scientifically accurate visualizations of objects in the celestial sphere, including planets, satellites and other NASA missions.

Enabling space research from home is one of the many projects of the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging. The institute contributes to the development of free software called OpenSpace. This downloadable program allows anyone to track the real-time or past and future trajectory and location of many objects in space.

“It’s a very open framework to be able to show all kinds of space content, telescopes, data from probes, missions that have been sent and everything from planetary scale to showing where galaxies, known galaxies are located in universe,” says Gene Payne, research software developer at the institute.

OpenSpace is widely used by planetariums, museums, university professors and even YouTube creators. As it is an open source software, it is free to use and it is not known who is using it, because anyone can do it.

Chuck Hansen is the project’s principal investigator at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute. “The overarching goal of the project is to make NASA data available to the masses,” Hansen said, “to show the public what NASA is doing with its mission data.”

“It’s also part of an educational push,” Payne says.

The institute develops OpenSpace in collaboration with the two other official partners of the project: the University of New York and the University of Linköping 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 graphic design,” Payne says.

Another part of the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging’s contribution was to add additional functionality to the software.

Developers from the U. allowed OpenSpace to “read and play the (NASA) mission in time…or play it forward. We can see where a mission is at, at a specific time.”

“The really important thing here is that there are no artist impression renderings,” Payne says. “Everything is scientifically accurate.”

A rendering of the James Webb Telescope is seen through OpenSpace at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
A rendering of the James Webb Telescope is seen through OpenSpace at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Gene Payne, OpenSpace)

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 still remains behind a 69-by-46-foot sunscreen, roughly 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 come back clean, Payne says.

An OpenSpace rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope orbit shows the telescope's orbit.
An OpenSpace rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope orbit shows the telescope’s orbit. (Photo: Gene Parry, Open Space)

Thanks to OpenSpace, users can follow 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 take advantage of a balance of the gravitational forces of the sun and the earth, allowing the telescope to use minimal fuel.

OpenSpace users can follow the telescope since its launch, watch the telescope unfolds its golden mirror and reach its destination. “It’s using actual NASA data for positions over time. It’s the actual trajectory and where it’s going,” Payne said.

The result is the stunning pictures that the Hubble telescope cannot capture.

Skydiving from an asteroid to Utah

A NASA-launched satellite, called OSIRIS-REx, is expected to drop a valuable payload in Tooele County in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx – or Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer – launched in 2016 and made a rapid flyby of Earth in 2017 to pick up speed before heading deeper into space.

His mission is a first for NASA: to acquire an asteroid sample and bring it back to Earth.

The target was Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid. The satellite reached Bennu in 2018, where it spent a few years in orbit and recovered rubble from the surface of the asteroid. The cameras built by a team from Utah State University were aboard the satellitewho 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 this rubble is delivered to Earth and falls from space onto the Utah Training and Testing Range in Tooele County.

“There’s also a bit of drama there. One of those previous missions where he sent back an actual sample from an asteroid, parachuted fine, but he hit hard, and kind of opened the canister and contaminated sample,” Payne said. .

After landing high above Utah, ORISIS-REx will embark on an even longer mission to the asteroid Apophis.

Artemis I

Like many space watchers, the team at the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging is eagerly awaiting the launch of the Artemis rocket, which is a major milestone for the return of astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Faced with technical problems, faulty equipmentand one hurricaneArtemis I has been delayed several times.

When Artemis I finally launches, the whole journey will be resumed on OpenSpace.

“When the Artemis missions go to the moon,” says Hansen, “OpenSpace will be ready to show the details.”

An OpenSpace rendering of the moon and Earth is seen on a large viewer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on October 24.
An OpenSpace rendering of the moon and Earth is seen on a large viewer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on October 24. (Photo: Matt Brooks, KSL.com)

So for this trip to Mars, it doesn’t have to be just a flyby.

“We have terrain imagery available, for Earth obviously, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, all the planets that we’ve flown probes over or used telescopes to get terrain imagery,” Payne said.

Or, if staying closer to home is your preferred route, you have that option.

“We have a satellite orbiting the Earth, every day it takes pictures of the entire globe. … 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 Open Space website.

An OpenSpace rendering of the International Space Station is seen on a viewer at the Institute for Scientific Computing and Imaging at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on October 24.
An OpenSpace rendering of the International Space Station is seen on a viewer at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on October 24. (Photo: Matt Brooks, KSL.com)

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Matt Brooks is a web producer at KSL.com. He previously worked for KSL NewsRadio.

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