Europe creates universal 'language' for space science

A consortium of European space scientists has succeeded in establishing a universal ‘language’ and data hub that allows the comparison of data from numerous space missions. A task that until now was hampered by the different data processing protocols of individual space missions.

The EU consortium, Integrated Medium for Planetary Exploration (IMPEx), is funded through the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme which ran from 2007-2013. The project set out to integrate observational planetary plasma data with corresponding models and modelled data through the creation of an integrated interactive computational framework.

The team created a universal framework by extending the data model SPASE (Space Physics Archive Search and Extract) to the area of computational modelling. In addition to the framework the team developed the IMPEx portal, a single point of access to a comprehensive toolset to view and filter observational and modelled data in the field of plasma physics.

Due to the complexity of space exploration, instruments and devices are usually purpose-made. This has created a number of different standards for data processing and number crunching tools as they are built, often in-house, using mission specific data structures and protocols.

This can mean that the exchange and comparison of observational data between missions and complex computational models developed by third parties is virtually impossible.

The newly developed IMPEx framework allows scientists to better understand complex observational data, to fill gaps in observations with computer simulated data and to compare observations and simulations. IMPEx tools were first used in comparisons of observational data from Venus Express (ESA) and Messenger (NASA) orbiting Mercury with existing simulation models and the comparison of data from the Rosetta mission with the respective simulation data will follow in the near future.

This sharing of research data between missions would not have been possible without the framework and tools provided by IMPEX. In addition these tools open up the possibility for more collaborative information sharing in the future as observational data can now easily be compared with theoretical numerical models – regardless of the protocols used.

IMPEx includes a consortium of five partners consisting of the Institut für Weltraumforschung (IWF), Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), Centre national de la recherché scientifique (CNRS), and the Russian partner the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP). The scientific focus is set on the plasma environments of Mercury (Messenger), Venus (VenusExpress), Earth (Cluster, Themis), Mars (MarsExpress), Jupiter and Ganymede (Galileo, JGO), Saturn and Titan (Cassini) and Comet 67P (Rosetta). ‏

Commenting on this success of the IMPEX project, Dr Maxim Khodachenko, project coordinator and senior scientist at the Space Research Institute (IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said: ‘The IMPEx portal offers tools for the visualisation and analysis of datasets from different space missions. Furthermore, several computational model databases are feeding into the environment.’

The portal itself provides access to a vast amount of observational data and simulation runs of the magnetic and plasma environments of several planets, moons and comets in the solar system which are also targets of several European and international space missions. Web service methods supported within the modelling sector of IMPEx give users the opportunity to reproduce the magnetic field and space plasma environment of magnetised planets on demand, or even in real time.

The starting point for data processing within the IMPEx portal is the CDPP AMDA (Automated Multi-Dataset Analysis) tool. AMDA offers processing of data by providing simple access and easy-to-use data mining functionalities. It is dedicated to the analysis and visualisation of observational and simulation data with a primary focus on space plasma physics.

Another IMPEx enabled tool is CDPP 3DView; with 3D-visualisation capabilities it offers the possibility of displaying spacecraft trajectories, planetary ephemerides as well as scientific representations of observational and simulation datasets. IMPEx databases are directly fed into 3DView, enabling an interactive combination of spacecraft orbits with their in-situ measurements and simulation data.

Recently, 3DView was used when observational magnetic field data of the Venus Express mission was compared to a specific magnetospheric simulation model. One of the IMPEx partners, FMI, developed a Hybrid simulation database that allows for simulation runs of the Venus magnetic field environment.

Selected simulation runs could be stored and further processed within the IMPEx portal environment. In addition the simulation was interpolated onto the trajectory of the Venus Express orbiter and the in-situ measurements could be compared with the simulation. Finally, both datasets – the in-situ measurements and the simulation – could be visualised in 3DView, directly on the trajectory of Venus Express.

A similar comparison was also done with observational magnetic field data of Mercury, obtained by the Messenger mission. Using IMPEx web services, simulations where interpolated onto the trajectory of the spacecraft and 3DView rendered the results.

Vincent Génot, project scientist from CNRS /IRAP commented: ‘The possibility of combining complex simulation data with in-situ measurements in the same analysis tools is one of the biggest achievements of IMPEx. Soon the system will also allow the comparison of observational data of the famous Rosetta mission with the simulation of the cometary environment. This will greatly contribute to our understanding of the earliest building blocks of our solar system. Indeed, the powerful IMPEx system will facilitate and promote the research on plasma and magnetic field environments not only of "Chury", Venus and Mercury but also of other objects in the solar system, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Earth itself.’

The consortium has not finished with the IMPEX yet as the teams are already at work on lifting IMPEx up into the cloud. Tarek Al-Ubaidi, project manager and one of the core IMPEX team, explained: ‘We would like to expand and complement the IMPEx concept with cloud resources and big data services. Especially the cloud execution of computational models would offer great advantages to the scientific community. We would like to combine this with a versatile architecture, comprehensive observational data archives and advanced data mining techniques. We have already submitted several proposals for realising these ideas.’

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