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NASA Releases Atlas Of Entire Sky

Atlas includes images and data about more than half a trillion objects throughout the universe, from stars to asteroids--and the whole thing is available online for free.

NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
NASA this week released to the Web an atlas and catalog of 18,000 images consisting of more than 563 million stars, galaxies, asteroids, planets, and other objects in the sky--many of which have never been seen or identified before--along with data on all of those objects.

The space agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, which was a collaboration of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California Los Angeles, collected the data over the past two years, capturing more than 2.7 million images and processing more than 15 TB of astronomical data along the way. In order to make the data easier to use, NASA condensed the 2.7 million digital images down to 18,000 that cover the entire sky.

The WISE mission, which mapped the entire sky, uncovered a number of never-before-seen objects in the night sky, including an entirely new class of stars and the first "Trojan" asteroid that shares the Earth's orbital path. The study also determined that there were far fewer mid-sized asteroids near Earth than had been previously thought. Even before the mass release of data to the Web, there have already been at least 100 papers published detailing the more limited results that NASA had already released.

[ Check out this tour of NASA's plans for future space exploration. See NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space. ]

The release of this data dovetails well with the White House's Open Government initiative, which calls on federal agencies to become more open and accountable. Each agency is required to have an Open Government strategy of its own, and elements of NASA's strategy revolve around "participatory exploration" and providing astrological data to the public.

NASA processed its data with the WISE Science Data System (WSDS), hosted at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology. WSDS includes hardware and software that converts raw WISE images and data into the images and accompanying metadata in the WISE image catalog and database.

Today, the data is available only for accessing online and for downloading in chunks, but NASA intends to make the entire database available in compressed text form for bulk download "in the very near future." The full uncompressed catalog will be 321 GB.

To make the data easier to use, NASA has posted tutorial videos online. NASA is also providing application programing interfaces to make it easier for programmers to develop applications that can query and download WISE data.

The image catalog allows users to zoom into images, save them to disk, change the color palette, bring up metadata on the images, select areas for cropping and doing further analysis on the image statistics, change the image rotation, and calculate the distance between any two objects.

In addition to the 18,000 images and a source catalog of 563 million objects, NASA is also releasing a "reject table" of items not included in the source catalog, including millions of additional images and data points such as time-tagged positions of objects as they moved across the sky, and a database of known objects that were predicted to be somewhere in the images.

InformationWeek's 2012 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2012 InformationWeek 500 issue and on Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2012 Government IT Innovators closes April 27.

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