BRIAN DAY, lead for citizen science and community development at NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), works with a team who built an app that allows anyone to take a virtual tour of the moon. “There is no doubt that humanity is heading outward. You’ve got the space agencies of many countries coming together, and you’ve also got private organizations. We have the capability of becoming a space faring civilization and it is going to happen in our lifetime.”
Brian notes that you can explore the moon from your smart phone (via https://sservi.nasa.gov/articles/moon-tours-explore-the-moon-with-a-new-app-from-nasa). He also recommends using continuous feedback to improve the tools you’re working with.
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Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody to this Hangout on Air. My name is Lisette and I am interviewing people and companies who are doing great things remotely. And I am back on the line tonight with the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, SSERVI for short. And we spoke with them last week and they mentioned a particular project, a tool that they were working on. And when I saw the video, I just had to know more. And it’s called the Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal, the LMMP. So today we have Brian Day with us to tell us a little bit about this. It’s very exciting stuff. It’s science fiction, Brian.
Brian: Thank you very much, Lisette. It is. It is very cool. It’s a lot of fun. We are taking data from a wide range of missions, from current missions, historic missions, from a wide range of instruments, and bringing them together in a set of tools that is now becoming available to the public. LMMP started out as a mission planning tool for the old Constellation program, NASA’s former program of sending people to the moon. But as we’ve progressed beyond the Constellation program and are planning new robotic missions and a variety of lunar explorations and research, LMMP is taking on a new form.
So we have a range of clients and a range of ways to access data from the moon and see it in an entirely new way. One of the exciting things is we’re making this available to the public so that members of the public can go to our web portal, that’s lmmp.nasa.gov, and can actually explore the moon in very fine detail themselves. And with the tools there, you can measure the sizes of craters, measure the depths of valleys, the heights of mountains. You can probe the gravity field of the moon, all kinds of things. Look at compositional variations. It’s a really neat way to explore the moon with the best of the NASA data that is available. We’re also really excited because we’re expanding LMMP to go beyond just the moon, but now to look at other planetary bodies. So we’re putting together a Mars portal, as well as a portal for the asteroid Vesta, which the Dawn mission just visited. The imagery that we got back from Vesta is truly amazing. So with our new Vesta interface that will be coming out later this year, you’ll be able to approach the asteroid, see it in 3D, fly around it, swoop down to the surface. It’s really neat stuff.
Brian: We’re doing this in preparation for the Dawn mission then arriving at the asteroid Ceres. Or now it’s the dwarf planet Ceres. You have to keep track of these things. You need a program to keep track of the players, but Ceres is now a dwarf planet. Dawn is going to arrive there. And Ceres is getting more and more interesting. We think there may actually be fountains of water that are erupting out of Ceres. So it’s a very, very, very fascinating time. Also, of course, we do have our Mars portal and we’re able to zoom down on Mount Sharp where the Curiosity rover is currently exploring. So we’re doing a lot of fun things. We have multiple clients. We have a web client. We have mobile clients. We have an iPhone. You can explore the moon from the convenience of wherever you are just with your iPhone. We have the Android version coming up very soon. We’re also serving our data up to the public. So we’re sending data out now to planetariums and other venues so that people can use this wonderful massive data and help do their own visualizations in their various venues. So it’s a really exciting time. We’re having fun.
Lisette: I can imagine. I mean this is like the best job ever. I can’t imagine a better job, in fact, than doing something like this. But what I’m curious about is this opening the data up to the public. For some reason, I have this “huh, why would they do that?” I don’t know. Is there anything secret about the moon? For a long time, we’re on a race who would get to the moon first and all this data, but now were opening it up to the public in general. So what will the public use it for and why?
Brian: Well, that’s an excellent question. First of all, the information is available to the public and has been available to the public for quite some time. Basically, when we do missions to the moon or other planets, we deposit that information into what’s called the Planetary Data System. And the Planetary Data System is, quite frankly, open to researchers anywhere. So there is access to this data. But quite frankly, using the Planetary Data System is maybe just a little bit arcane. It is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to use. And so LMMP provides a little bit of a friendlier way of accessing some of this data, and it makes it easy to visualize this information. And one of the things that we’re finding is that citizen scientists and amateur astronomers are able to play right along with the lunar science researchers.
Brian: So we find that there are a number of interesting observations and discoveries that are made by amateur astronomers and citizen scientists all the time as we look at the data coming from the moon. Especially right now from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that is in orbit around the moon, the amount of data that is coming down is huge. So there is a great opportunity for amateur astronomers and citizen scientists going through that data to make their own discoveries. For instance, one of the things that we’re really interested in is something called lunar pits. When you look at the surface of the moon, you see craters all over the place. The moon is full of holes, but there are some holes that are different than others. As opposed to your typical crater which is this bowl-like formation, this bowl-like hole on the surface, sometimes we see these interesting pits that appear to be openings into voids beneath the surface. What we think they may be are actually skylights into lava tubes that are extending beneath the surface. That’s really interesting for us. That is a fascinating geomorphological construct there. It could be an interesting place for us to explore, maybe even to live if we decided to live and work on the surface of the moon. And it’s a great analog for similar structures that we see on Mars because we see the same type of skylights into lava tubes on Mars. And when we see those, that really gets us thinking because we know that on Mars, the surface is absolutely dried out. It is a real, nasty desert. Though we have good reason to believe that in wide areas on the surface of Mars, there’s water beneath the surface in the form of permafrost. And in some cases, there is some evidence that there might even be liquid water, not just frozen water, perhaps beneath the surface of Mars. And if we look at Mars as an environment that used to be wet and lush and perhaps very friendly to life – we’ve got good evidence for that now – it has changed over time. But if there was once life on Mars and if there still is life on Mars, then it would’ve retreated underground. So looking down in these lava tubes will be a great place to look. So having analogs for that on the moon, well, that’s interesting. So again, these are things that are available for people to discover. You can measure slopes. You can do all kinds of neat investigations, calculate ages of different regions of the moon. There are a lot of things that amateur astronomers and citizen scientists can do.
Lisette: And how many inputs or how many people do you get contacting you saying, hey, I think I found something? Is there a ton?
Brian: Quite frankly, we’re just starting now. We’re going to be working with a number of partners that do specific citizen science programs. So that is being done now. We have people who are from, quite frankly, grade school through retirement homes who are now exploring the moon with data coming from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. And so what we’re hoping to do is be able to bring more and more of that data, make it more and more available to people, again, going out through a variety of venues and a variety of programs. So not just our web interface but serving that data out to tools that maybe some of your watchers are going to come up with. We’d be happy to work with any and all comers here. We can make the data available.
Lisette: Wow! Some sort of app for the lunar surface, I can only imagine. To me, this seems very, very exciting that the data is open to the public and that people are invited to look at it and to make conclusions. When you get that kind of brain power from people all over the world, then you really start to open things up to some exciting times.
Brian: It is. And of course we are using this as a tool for lunar science in general. So we have lunar scientists who are using it. There was a big hit at our exploration science forum here. You have scientific talks being given and people would come into the LMMP room and they pull up the various tools and they debate what had been presented in the various talks of the conference. We’ve got some video that we’ll be able to show you here of people actually using it. We’ve got a wonderful touch table where people can bring up various windows to look at the moon in different ways at the same time. And we’re using that same capability to help plan future missions to the moon. So we’re working on that right now and looking at various landing sites, potential landing sites, and areas of operation on the moon.
Lisette: So I saw this touch table in the video that you sent before this interview. I’ll splice it into this interview later. So it exists on this crazy touch… Is the touch table just for the LMMP? Was that specifically built for that? Or is that another fancy touch table that I’ve just never seen before?
Brian: It’s actually a touch table that had existed before and that we have taken advantage of. So LMMP, quite frankly, has a brilliant development team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. I cannot say enough about this great team that we get to work with. And a number of them have actually been doing some earth sciences work. We’re looking at earth resources in remote sensing. This touch table was originally used in that context. But as they started looking at it, they started thinking, hey, hey, hey, look at this. We can do something really neat here for the moon. And sure enough they did. It’s quite impressive.
Lisette: I bet. Give me a sense of the size of this table.
Brian: I believe it’s a 60-inch right now. We’re using a 60-inch diagonal. So it’s a pretty good size to touch table. Of course, we’re looking at a bigger one because bigger is more fun, right?
Lisette: For sure, more data. There’s just more data. So you have this at the touch table. But this is actually a web-based portal, you were describing.
Brian: Yeah. So we have multiple clients. So we have our web-based client. We have our mobile client. This touch table is a new client that’s in development. We also have a hyper-wall client. So we’re looking at a variety of ways of showing off. We’re even looking at some of the neat 3D virtual reality goggle. You can put your goggles on and turn your head and scan around the moon. It’s a neat way to do visualization. This should probably be a particular interest to you in the area of study that you do. We’re looking at really distributed collaborative work. So you might have a team that is doing research about certain aspect of the moon or a team that is proposing a mission to the moon. And one of the things that can be done with LMMP is that team members can add their own data and they can make that available to the general public, or they can make that specific to their workgroup. And also, as you are working on LMMP and you might stack various layers of data. So you might have imagery from LRO with laser altimetery, and then overlaid on that some compositional data. And you can adjust the transparency of each of those layers and zoom in. So you’re just pinpointing the information, highlighting the information that you want. That can be almost an artistic endeavor. But once you’ve got that as you wanted, then you’re probably going to want to save that. And you might even want to share that. We have the ability to do that. So you can actually create an Internet bookmark of that composite view of the moon that you’ve just created. And then you can send that to any of your colleagues wherever they are. And they get that URL, they plug it into LMMP, and boom. Up comes that same view with the same data, the same layers with the same adjustments of transparency, the same zoom that you had specified. So it makes it really easy for people to share information.
Lisette: That’s awesome. That’s how it should be. We’ll solve problems like this when you get the best people working together from anywhere. That’s totally exciting. When I saw the table, and I’m assuming online, it looks so fast. But when I see the amount of data and when I hear you talk about the amount of data that you have, how are you making it so fast? And the rest of the Internet needs to learn from you [laughs].
Brian: There are a couple of things. First of all, the touch table itself is very, very responsive. That is what really impressed me and a lot of my colleagues here. Our development team did a fantastic job of identifying just the right hardware. But then also, a lot of this happens behind the scenes. And you’re right, the amount of data that we have there on the moon is pretty phenomenal. And if you’re trying to serve up that huge amount of data at one time, it would become very unwieldy very quickly. So basically, what we have is a series of tiling services that take smaller pieces and put them together in an intelligent way. And this optimizes the ability to really bring this data to a client in a way that is usable, and really optimizes the visualization process. So tiling is a key service to what is going on behind LMMP.
Lisette: And the different teams that you have. Everybody is accessing the data via the web portal. The teams are working together on projects that they’ve designed. And then I’m assuming that there’s going to be some random things that happen, some random teams that form based on like, oh, I didn’t see this before. We’ve got to check this out. Let’s get in the iron expert, or I don’t know.
Brian: Here at SSERVI, we have a number of our own teams, the SSERVI funded teams here domestically. We also have international partners. So what we’re doing is a lot of outreach to our teams to make sure they know that this tool is available and how to best use it, and that was part of what happened at our exploration science forum, really getting them hooked on using this tool. But it’s also available to research teams throughout the community, the planetary science community. So it’s not just a SSERVI. It’s not just a NASA tool. As we start seeing commercial efforts mounting toward the moon versus the Lunar XPRIZE coming up, there are a lot of things that are happening. There’s a lot of commercial interest in the moon and in asteroids. So commercial space is an area we’re looking. We’re looking at our international partners. We have a lot of international partners that are expressing a great deal of interest in going to the moon right now. And we would love to have LMMP be a part of their mission planning. So we’re making this available to pretty much all comers, anyone who wants to come and use it. It’s a fantastic tool. And we’re also looking for feedback. So when you go to the LMMP site, one of the things you’ll notice at the bottom there is a survey. You can take this survey and let us know what additional data products, what additional capabilities would you like to see incorporated. So you can help us develop LMMP into even better tools.
Lisette: It sounds surprisingly collaborative to me. And for some reason, I expected there to be more secrecy and more competition and more keeping the data to ourselves. That was in my head, so I’m totally surprised and excited about how open this all sounds.
Brian: Well, I tell you, I just got back from the European Planetary Science Congress in Portugal. It was really, really gratifying to see the incredible lunar research that is being done by our partners. At that conference, we specially highlighted what’s being done in Europe, but people from around the world were there giving presentations. The moon has changed dramatically. This is probably one of the main points to make here, is that our view of the moon as being this geologically dead, utterly arid, utterly airless world is wrong. A new generation of robotic lunar explorers, just within the past few years, has completely revolutionized our understanding of the moon. If you pick up just about any textbook today and you read about the moon, it’s wrong.
Brian: To me that’s exciting. That’s really exciting. So there is this wonderful excitement throughout the worldwide lunar science community right now. So I was fortunate enough to be able to present LMMP at the European Planetary Science Congress meeting, and I was glad to be able to share the capabilities of our tool with all of our partners there. But it was valuable to me to be able to sit there and listen to the incredible things that they’re doing. And it’s a feedback loop. So as we work with them, we’ll make a better tool, and our better tool will help them, and it just keeps getting better all the way around.
Lisette: Yeah, it does sound like there’s enough work for everybody out there. So if we’re all contributing in our own expertise, then we can do great things together for sure. So what challenges do you have with the LMMP? Is it getting people to use it? What’s the most challenging aspect?
Brian: Oh, there are any number of challenges that we always face. This is in a constrained economic time. There are always the funding issues, and the prioritization of what do we do first. And that becomes harder once we realize that we have the ability to really extend this to a number of worlds.
Lisette: Right, because now there’s…
Brian: Part of it is getting the word out, so that’s why I am very excited to be able to work with you on this. I want more people to know about LMMP. But it’s really right now largely a matter of, I would say, prioritization. What do we need to do first? And quite frankly, there are a lot of people with very good arguments for what we should be focusing on. We’ve got planned mission to the moon coming up called the Resource Prospector Mission. And we’re very much excited to be a part of that and help in some of the mission planning for that. But at the same time, of course, Mars is an irresistible target. And in addition to Mars itself, Mars’s moon Phobos is of great interest right now. That might be an interesting place for upcoming missions to Mars, maybe even crude missions to Mars with humans on the surface of Phobos perhaps doing telerobotics. So rather than everybody dropping down into that deep gravity well of Mars, perhaps you’d have some remote operations from Mars’s moon Phobos. There are a lot of interesting possibilities. And of course one of the things that we know is that when the Dawn mission gets to Ceres, we’re going to be surprised.
Brian: We realize that there are some fantastic and intriguing about Ceres. Tony Colaprete, who is our chief scientist from the LCROSS mission, discovered ice at the south pole of the moon. Shortly before the mission arrived at the moon, a reporter asked him what do you expect? And he just looked and he said I expect to be surprised. That’s one of the best things about the job.
Lisette: Yeah, just the constant exploration. And it’s not just earth; it’s the universe, which is totally cool. It’s not even just the universe, it’s even beyond.
Brian: I invite you and all your viewers to join us in this exploration. We’ve got great data coming back. Come explore it with us.
Lisette: I can’t imagine why somebody wouldn’t want to do this. We’ve all got our interest, but anybody with even a remote interest in this kind of thing, I think what a great opportunity! And so the best way to do that… Maybe this is a good way to end, which is you say it’s lmmp.nasa.gov. That’s where people can go to learn more and to start playing with the data of the moon right now and maybe soon the Mars portal.
Brian: That’s right, and I would also encourage people to download the mobile app which is called Moon Tours. So if you go to the App Store for iOS, you’ll be able to download that for free. And very soon we will have the Moon Tours version. I’m actually testing the beta of that right now on my Android phone and tablet. So we’ll have that available at Google Play for Android very soon.
Lisette: Wow! Totally cool. I’m going to be downloading that this evening, that’s for sure.
Brian: Very good.
Lisette: So it makes me very excited that you’re saying… I wrote down in my notes: living and working on the moon and Mars. It seems to me like when you said that, it was very convincing that it was really a possibility.
Brian: Oh, absolutely. There is no doubt that humanity is heading outward. You’ve got the space agencies of many countries coming together, and you’ve got now private organizations. We have the capability of becoming a spacefaring civilization and it is going to happen.
Lisette: Awesome. What’s the time zone difference between, say for instance, California and… I don’t know what’s analogous on the moon. But if you’re on the moon, what time difference are we talking about?
Brian: The difference…so light travel time between here and the moon is actually fairly trivial. You don’t really notice a lag. It’s probably on the order of a second or so. But when you start talking Mars, then you can get a significant time lag – which makes driving a rover remotely fairly challenging. You’ll notice that our Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are not driving at really quick speeds, and a lot of that is because you give a command and it goes a little bit, and you stop and you look, because there is that big lag time. It can be, I want to say on the order of 15 minutes between light travel time, and that presents a challenge.
Lisette: Of course.
Brian: And as we go further out, we’ve got also coming up a probe that is about to encounter Pluto. We have had good looks at all of the planets in our solar system, the historical planets. Everything keeps changing, but I’ll say the historical planets in our solar system. We have had good looks at all of them with the exception of Pluto, and that is about to change.
Lisette: How much longer?
Brian: Next year.
Lisette: Next year.
Brian: Yeah. So NASA has got a mission that is going to fly by Pluto and give us our first really good look. The New Horizons mission is coming up. We all want to look at that. We’re all excited. There’s so much going on right now. Of course, the moons of Jupiter are attracting our attention. We now know that probably three of them have oceans of liquid water beneath their global ice caps. We’re seeing similar things on some of the moons of Saturn. Saturn’s moon Enceladus is even shooting geysers of water out into space. It’s an exciting time to be exploring.
Lisette: It does seem like this is a very special time in space history. There was a special time when we first got out there, and now it just seems to be propelling pretty fast as we leave the solar system, as we get up close, data on the planets. I can only imagine that this must be totally great to be involved with this on a daily basis. It must be totally great, because it seems to me, and maybe it’s because I’m hopeful and it’s something that I really want, but it seems to me like we’re going to be finding life somewhere.
Brian: You raised an interesting point. When I was a young kid, there were some scientists who were making some fairly convincing arguments that our solar system might actually be unique. The planets going around a star might be a very, very, very rare occurrence. You could make a good argument that we might be alone. Well, the Kepler space telescope has changed all of that and we now know solar systems abound. Wherever we look, there are planets going around stars. And when you think that there are several hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and it appears that most of those probably have planets going around them, that’s impressive. But it gets bigger than that because as we look further out, we see there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. And then we realize that the building blocks of life, amino acids, are being formed in space all around us and rain down on us in the form of meteorites. If you look at, for instance, the Murchison meteorite that landed in Australia, when it first landed and people saw it come down as a big streak in the sky, a big boom, and people ran out to see this rock from outer space. When they found it, the first thing they noticed about it is it stinks. I mean it smelled bad. And the question of course is why would a rock from outer space smell so bad? Well, the answer is it was just packed full of these amino acids, these building blocks of life. So when we look at all the worlds that are out there and the building blocks of life forming in space around us and raining down upon us, it’s just hard to fathom that we would be alone.
Lisette: Right. It’s interesting because I remember I was in high school science class and I remember the professor saying there’s no chance. And he gave all these statistics how even if the closest whatever was, and there’s water. I remember the rant. It was a rant. He was totally empty. So I think, for a long time, I just always considered that he was the professor, so I just thought he must be right. But as I learned more about it, I think, oh, I hope he knows [laughs]. I mean we have no proof yet, but you’re right. The statistics. It seems unfathomable that we would be alone, given that billions and billions of opportunities for life to be elsewhere. It’s a cool time. I’m totally excited by it. I’m thrilled to hear what kind of a collaborative atmosphere it is with the sharing of the data and the asking for us mere mortals to get involved in and playing with the data, because it seems to me that that’s where the magic really happens, when you get these wild ideas and people putting things together that you’d never think to put together, and pushing buttons and seeing what happens. It just seems awesome.
Brian: You bring up a great point because it really is a human effort. It is an international effort. We here at SSERVI are very excited because again as I mentioned, we have a number of international partners that we count as part of our organization. We just signed a new one just a few weeks ago in Italy. So we’re glad to have Italy now joining the fold. But beyond being an international effort, again, there is so much that citizen scientists can do. I really need to emphasize that. On our most recent mission to the moon, the LADEE mission, where we studied the atmosphere of the moon, we had teams of amateur astronomers actually with their telescopes observing the moon during the course of the mission, watching for the flashes of meteoroid impacts on the moon, and actually recording them. We actually recorded a number of meteoroid impacts on the moon during the course of the LADEE mission. And that was important because we know that meteoroid impacts can be an important source for the lunar atmosphere. So we actually had amateur astronomers in locations even some there in Europe, actually recorded and provided us with this data of actual meteoroid impacts during the course of our mission. So the equipment that is available to citizen scientists and amateur astronomers now is truly amazing. The telescopes, the cameras, the scientific instruments – amateurs are doing work now that, only a few years ago, professionals could only dream of.
Lisette: I love that in a way, everybody is becoming a little bit more… entrepreneurial is maybe not the right word, but it’s sort of a time when you have an interest in something and you really want to know. You do now have the means to do it. So if I really want to be a scientist and I want to go study the moon, in these times, that is something that I can choose to do without going to a university. Of course, it certainly helps. But if somebody has enough drive and motivation, they have access now.
Brian: Exactly. It’s just a phenomenal time to be studying the universe around us.
Lisette: Yeah, and I’m really honored that I got a chance to talk with you guys about this. These interviews hopefully will reach a new kind of audience, maybe something that NASA is not normally in touch with: the management, the Agile world, the managers in the world, the remote workers. I hope that this is something inspiring to those people as well.
Brian: Very good. Thank you so much for helping us get the word out. Thank you for spreading the word.
Lisette: Oh yeah, my pleasure. Thank you for taking the time. I’ll add on the videos that you sent into this interview so that other people can understand what we’re talking about. So thank you so much.
Brian: Fantastic, thank you.
Lisette: Until next time, everybody, be powerful.