OpenSpace: Bringing NASA Research to the Public

New software aims to make immersive 3D experiences of space missions available to public

In the past, NASA space missions have only been available to the public through produced planetarium shows or animations with limited data. A new collaborative effort among Alexander Bock, Moore-Sloan Data Science Fellow at CDS, Charles Hansen, University of Utah, Anders Ynnerman, Linkӧping University, and others aims “to provide an interactive experience in which the public can see and experience space missions to better understand the science, the benefit to mankind, and the challenges of deep-space missions.”

To this end, Bock and collaborators developed OpenSpace, new open source interactive data visualization software which uses existing planetarium capabilities for comprehensive astrovisualization of the entire known universe. OpenSpace uses high-resolution data files called kernels from NASA’s Spacecraft Planet Instrument C-matrix Events (SPICE) to replicate previously flown and planned missions. Full SPICE visualization, in the past, has only been available in mission planning software, produced videos, and some limited commercial applications.

Now the public, for the first time, can experience the most accurate space visualization experiences available. OpenSpace also sources data from NASA’s past and ongoing space missions which make maps of solar bodies available through their Web Map Service standard and NASA’s Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS), updated daily from various image sources.

OpenSpace has multifaceted deployment capabilities, especially in multiuser immersive environments. These environments range from individual VR headsets to planetarium domes. While OpenSpace was developed primarily for planetarium domes, it also supports laptops, desktop computers, multi-projection wall displays, and multi-touch visualization tables offered by the company Interspectral AB. Touch tables are particularly effective for classes of K-12 students and as exhibitions in museums.

Bock and collaborators demonstrate OpenSpace’s capabilities with SPICE kernels from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, a reconnaissance campaign to map and obtain samples from Bennu, a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. OpenSpace incorporates real mission planning data from the SPICE files to inform the public in immersive environments.

A key component of OpenSpace, along with its use of the highest-quality data available, is its flexibility in delivery and interaction potential. The researchers hope their work will help educate the public to raise awareness and support of NASA’s missions.

By Paul Oliver