The Birth of Star Files
Last month, NASA’s space capsule Osiris-Rex spacecraft After completing a seven-year, four-billion-mile journey from Earth to asteroid Bennu and back, it plummeted into the Utah desert in a violent descent. Inside lay about a half-pound of debris captured from Bennu – the first successful U.S. mission to return material from an asteroid and only the third successful mission in the world. Soon, small samples will be distributed to more than 200 scientists at institutions around the world, who will conduct extensive chemical analysis over the next few years. Among other things, these studies may help unlock the mysteries of how the solar system and our own planet were born and evolved.
Like other extraterrestrial materials collected by NASA, including meteorites, moon rocks and cosmic dust, the Bennu sample will generate a wealth of data. But in recent years, NASA has realized a big problem: For a long time, there was no central repository for all this data, and the analysis results were scattered around the world in laboratories, universities and research institutes where the tests were conducted. Much of this data is not easily accessible and in some cases has even been lost.Therefore, the agency decided to Celestial Material Data Systembased at Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
In short, Astromat’s mission is to track, catalog, digitize, preserve and make geochemical data and some other materials from all past, current and future NASA missions and make them easily accessible and searchable. This includes the Apollo moon missions from 1969 to 1972; the Stardust and Genesis missions, which returned solar wind particles in 2004 and debris from the tails of comets in 2006; and tiny space particles that accumulate in Earth’s orbit aerial vehicles or special high-flying aircraft; about 22,000 meteorites collected in Antarctica; and some data from Japan’s 2010 Hayabusa mission, the first to bring asteroid material back to Earth. Future plans include NASA’s Artemis mission, which aims to collect more material from the moon in the next decade, and plans to return samples from Mars in the 2040s.
“This will preserve the data for future generations and create new opportunities to study it and build new insights,” the mineralogist said Kirsten Leinart, who directs the project as leader of the Lamont Geoinformatics Research Group. “It’s also about the democratization of science. Before, only a small, isolated community had access to large amounts of this data. Now, everything is available to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.”
This project is the product of Geochemistryis a vast repository of geochemical analyzes of materials on the Earth itself that the group has run since 2006. The extraterrestrial project began in 2014, when they worked with NASA to build an analysis library obtained from the Apollo missions. Starting in 2019, the system was upgraded so that it could begin archiving data from all NASA materials. Most of the post-Apollo mission data has been released this year. In August, NASA budgeted $10 million to operate the system over the next five years, with data to be stored on NASA’s mission cloud platform at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The grant also supports collaboration with the astromaterials community to encourage data sharing.
The system currently contains the results of nearly 1.3 million individual chemical analyses. That number will grow rapidly with the OSIRIS-REX mission and the recent release to researchers of a new batch of untouched lunar material stored by NASA. Because scientists are now able to view and compare all the data from thousands of individual studies, new knowledge is emerging from old information. This year, a group of meteorite experts and data scientists used machine learning to cull the data, which allowed them to understand the origins of some previously unclassifiable meteorites.
Finding data and converting it into a unified, usable form is a lengthy process, Lehnert said. Initially, the 10-person team had to sift through the scientific literature and identify published research results; there was no central record. Recent studies have provided data on digital supplements, but earlier studies before this technology became the standard did not. To do this, the team had to contact the study authors to obtain the records. Furthermore, many analyzes remain unpublished, only mentioned in abstracts presented at scientific meetings, or not presented at all; this requires more legwork.
The further they go, the harder it becomes to recover data stored on floppy disks or other obsolete media in antique computer languages, as well as piles of computer printouts, typescripts or plain old handwritten forms. As researchers retire or die, some data is lost.The team tracked the analysis, in part, by visiting archives in the basement of the Space Flight Center, where NASA records every bit of material it distributes—all in reams of paper stacked from floor to ceiling. Binders and folders, some of which have content already deterioration.
Lehnert said that in the more than 50 years since NASA began collecting materials from space, technology to analyze smaller samples in more sophisticated ways has come a long way. This means that older data in archives can be synthesized through new advanced analytics. Importantly, she added, the agency has been systematically preserving original materials for future scientists to examine using new technologies. This would include 70% of the material from the asteroid Bennu. “Fifty years from now, they will have achieved major improvements that were never thought of before,” she said. “This will allow us to make fantastic new discoveries.”