Open Source Influencing Space Programs: James Webb Space Telescope
Open source has gradually become a key factor for exploring and advancing science and astronomy. Several images today convey information about the early universe, star birth and death, galaxy collisions, and exoplanet atmospheres. These images have become an internet sensation since they surfaced, and what’s intriguing about this is the role open source technologies play in this. This article will discuss open source involvement in space technologies. We’ll discuss the role of design and open source in space telescope archives. we’ll highlight open source tools incorporated into NASA’s [James Webb Space Telescope](https://www.space.com/21925-james-webb-space-telescope-jwst.html). Thirdly, we’ll look at the open-source projects and tools that were used in the JWST mission.
Open Source and Space
Although open source has been used in some of the most cutting-edge technologies in recent years and has doubled in benefits since then, open source is only the beginning. Innumerable examples show how open source has globally resolved several technological problems. Including assisting in collecting, storing, and analysing geographic and location-based data, bringing digital transformation to healthcare, exploring the Moon’s craters for surface ice, and landing a helicopter on Mars.
Most space missions are now turning towards tools and technologies that are less expensive and more accessible and offer a reusable multi-mission flight architecture. Hence, this has cause the popularity of open source software in space exploration programs. Some notable instances of open source influencing astronomic activities are:
Landing helicopter on Mars
The launch of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter to Mars in 2020 was a success, thanks to open-source software and contributors that made it possible. Ingenuity became the most powerful aircraft to fly all the way to mars, using JPL’s (Jet Propulsion Lab) open-source flight control framework F Prime (F’). Initially designed for small-scale spaceflight systems like CubeSats and SmallSats, F prime is now utilised for various projects. A large portion of Ingenuity Helicopter’s software is built in C++ open source implementation. It also runs an embedded Linux distribution and uses Python as the programming language for managing data processing, flight modelling, and ground control.
JPL Open Source Rover
In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover was a great success as it travelled the farthest distance on Mars of any craft. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) soon after introduced the Open Source Rover, a scaled-down version of the six-wheel Curiosity rover JPL launched to examine Mars’ surface. This project was specifically designed to prompt and encourage science and robotics in classrooms.
Space Telescope Archives
MAST (Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes), an educational non-profit at the Space Telescope Science Institute, has made space data openly accessible and reusable for everyone with a focus on productivity and accessibility of astronomical data. The Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes provides the scientific community free access to optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared astronomical data. Data from more than 15 telescopes have been stored by the MAST; these resources are accessible to everyone. It houses data that has been preserved from more than a dozen missions, including Webb, Hubble, TESS, Kepler, and maybe Roman in the future.
Open source in SpaceX’s flight software
Software engineers from SpaceX have acknowledged that many flight components for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket use Linux and open source libraries written in C++. Interestingly, the touchscreen UI of the Crew Dragon is powered by Chromium, an open-source project behind the Google Chrome OS and browser.
Fascinating, right? In what ways can a developer’s singular contributions to a project change the world for the better? These are but a few examples that showcase the use of open source software in astronomical research and space programs.
Space Images from the James Webb Telescope
Recently, NASA released mind-blowing space images of our galaxy and beyond using its next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (nicknamed Webb or JWST). James Webb is an infrared space observatory launched on December 25, 2021. The JWST is the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor.
It uses near-infrared light and will help to study and comprehend galaxy formation and evolution, star formation, and planet formation, as well as planetary systems and the origins of life. It is possible to use it to search for light emanating from the very first stars and galaxies that developed in the universe after the Big Bang. Using JWST, researchers are attempting to determine whether other exoplanet atmospheres contain methane for the possible significance of biosignatures.
JWST has captured a series of space images from multiple galaxies thousands of light years away from Earth. Some of these images include:
- The “Carina Nebula”
The image, taken in infrared by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, reveals a region of star formation in the Carina Nebul that was previously hidden. NGC 3324 is a young, star-forming region located approximately 7,500 light-years from Earth.
- Stephan’s Quintet
The James Webb Space Telescope revealed a visual grouping of five galaxies called the Stephan’s Quintet with more astonishing details. It is roughly 290 million light-years away and can be found in the constellation Pegasus. JWST also captures a giant shockwave as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, ruptures through the cluster.
- Southern Ring Nebula
NGC 3132 is a planetary nebula known as the “Southern Ring Nebula”. It is a massive, expanding sphere of gas and dust illuminated in all directions for thousands of years by a dying star in the centre. It is about 2,500 light-years away.
- SMACS 0723
The galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 provides extensive details, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared. This cluster of thousands of galaxies was captured using the James Webb Space Telescope and contains the most profound and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe.
- Cartwheel Galaxy
The Cartwheel Galaxy is 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation. The JWST revealed new information about the Cartwheel galaxy and two companion galaxies. A violent collision between a massive spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy is likely to cause the galaxy’s appearance. The image reveals more information about star formation and galaxy structures.
Open Source Tools Used in James Webb Telescope
Python’s popularity in astronomical sciences has skyrocketed in the last decade, and so has open-source software. Scientists, software engineers, and infrastructure specialists now rely on mathematical packages such as NumPy and matplotlib in creating JWST tools like JWST core data pipelines, simulation tools, and data analysis visualisation tools.
Some notable open source projects used for JWST include:
The Astropy project is a community initiative to provide a single core package for astronomy in Python. It fosters the creation of open-source software tools that offer researchers need astronomy-specific functionality. This project encompasses the Astropy core package, all “affiliated packages”, and the community aimed at bringing resources together.
The core packages are designed so that programming with Astropy will result in compact and legible code. It contains various classes, utilities, and a packaging framework that provides commonly-used astronomy tools. Astronomy-related python packages are not part of the astropy core source code but share the goals of Astropy and are often built from the core package’s code and infrastructure. AstroPy complements more generic scientific packages such as NumPy and SciPy.
NumPy is a Python module that stands for Numerical Python. It is an open-source library that contains multidimensional array objects and a set of array processing techniques. NumPy is frequently used in conjunction with SciPy (Scientific Python) and Matplotlib. It is to accomplish the following operations:
- Array in mathematical and logical procedures
- Operations involving linear algebra. NumPy contains
- linear algebra functions and random number generating routines.
- Fourier transformations and shape manipulation algorithms
Matplotlib is a Python package that allows you to create static, animated, and interactive visualisations. Matplotlib makes simple things simple and difficult things possible. This library can be used in Python scripts, Python/IPython shells, web application servers, and various graphical user interface toolkits.
F’(F Prime) is a component-driven open source framework that allows for quickly creating and deploying embedded systems and spacecraft applications. F prime is designed at JPL for small-scale systems such as CubeSats, SmallSats, and instrumentation.
WebbPSF is a Python library that generates simulated point spread functions (PSFs) for NASA’s James Webb and Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescopes. It generates pictures for any of the four scientific instruments and the exemplary guidance sensor in direct and coronagraphic modes.
jdaviz is a set of visualisation tools for astronomical data analysis built on the Jupyter platform. It is one of the tools in STScI’s more comprehensive Data Analysis Tools Ecosystem.
JWST Calibration Pipeline
The JWST Calibration Pipeline is a Python software package that handles data from JWST sensors such as NIRCam, NIRSpec, NIRISS, MIRI, and FGS. It conducts nominal processing of JWST data for the instruments and instrument modes, providing users with science-ready data outputs. It is a subsystem of the JWST operating pipeline utilised by the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) to calibrate all JWST data.
The growth in open source use and best practices in space science is encouraging. We continue to see groundbreaking contributions of open source technologies to astronomical science programs. With the introduction of more open, collaborative initiatives,“NASA is designating 2023 as the Year of Open Science”. Libre Space Foundation Greece is one example of an organisation that creates and promotes open-source technologies for space activities. Another is TOPS (Transform to Open Science), an initiative dedicated to encouraging the scientific community’s participation in open source methods through activities and events encouraging adoption. With the speed at which open source tools and technologies are being adopted by space programs, a new era for open source software may be upon us.