Friday, August 31, 2012

The MAVEN Science Data Center

by Alex DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center Manager

Alex DeWolfe is the MAVEN Science Data Center Manager at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. (Courtesy Alex DeWolfe) 

 I’m in charge of the Science Data Center (SDC) for MAVEN, part of the Science Operations Center at LASP. Our job is to store all of the science data produced during the mission in one place and make it easily accessible to all of the members of the science team, to generate preliminary plots of science data, and to make sure all of the science data is archived for future use and public access.

 The SDC is part of the MAVEN “ground system,” the network of institutions, people, computers, and antennas here on Earth that communicates with the spacecraft, controlling it and handling all the data it sends back. Once the spacecraft goes into orbit around Mars in 2014, after all the instruments have been checked out and we know everything is working smoothly, we’ll start collecting science data and beaming it back to Earth. We’re going to a lot of trouble to build a spacecraft and send it to Mars, and the science data is the point of the whole mission! An important aspect of MAVEN science is that we plan to use science data from all the instruments together to get the most complete picture of the atmosphere possible. In order to do that, we have to have all of the data available to the entire team simultaneously. The MAVEN team is made up of a lot of people at different places around the U.S. and the world, and we need to have a central library of data where all of the team members can get the latest data products.

You might think that the bits come back from the spacecraft and go straight to the scientists, or that everything is processed in one central location. In reality, what the spacecraft sends us is a very low-level form of data that has to be refined before it’s usable by the science team. First, the “telemetry,” the stream of bits coming from the spacecraft, is collected by the Deep Space Network (DSN), using their worldwide network of huge radio antennas. The DSN hands the data off to the Mission Support Area at Lockheed Martin, which is responsible for spacecraft operations. They send the science and instrument data to us at the Science Operations Center, where we process the telemetry into a slightly more usable form.

The MAVEN Science Data Center is part of the Science Operations Center at LASP, where MAVEN science data will be stored, accessed by the science team to generate preliminary plots of science data, and archived for future use and public access. (Courtesy LASP) 

 The Payload Operations side of our group manages the instrument operations, making sure the instruments are working properly and planning upcoming observations. Meanwhile, the science data and a little bit of spacecraft data go into the storage system here at the SDC. We do some processing to generate “quick-look” plots, to give the science team a first look at the science data from the past few days, and then we make sure that all the data the team needs for more advanced processing is present and accounted for. We have to keep the data safe—we can’t have losses from hard drive crashes or power failures—but we also have to get it to the rest of the team as soon as possible.

After the rest of the team gets their hands on the data they need, they then turn it into real “science products.” These are mostly data files, which they can use to examine and compare various quantities that we’re measuring at Mars. These files are delivered back to the SDC, where we can keep them safe and share them with the rest of the team. After the first few months of the mission, we’ll come to another SDC task: sending the science data to the Planetary Data System, where it is permanently archived and made available to the wider scientific community.

I joined the MAVEN team as we were just starting to design the SDC systems, and now we’re starting to set up hardware and write software. It’s been fun so far, but I’m really looking forward to the next few years, in which we’ll put together the whole SDC and start operating it as MAVEN arrives at Mars. I feel tremendously fortunate to be part of this exciting mission.

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