Capability Demonstration for Applied Information Systems Research in Astronomy and Planetary Science, 15-9152

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Principal Investigator
Alan S. Stern (Hal Levison)

Inclusive Dates:  07/19/99 - 11/19/99

Background - The Internet/World Wide Web (www) began in the research community, but has since revolutionized many commercial industries (witness eBay and It is now re-revolutionizing research communities as well (e.g., in cracking prime number problems, see One recent and particularly inspiring research application of the web is the SETI@home project ( SETI@home allows virtually anyone with an Internet connection and a home computer to install a screen saver that assists a major astronomical effort in its large data reduction requirements.

Inspired by this effort, the research team envisioned a set of projects to provide specialized research tools formerly available only to professional researchers, to the far larger amateur and hobbyist astronomical communities, to multiply the available computing and data-gathering capabilities of the astronomical and planetary research communities. The specific applications envisioned are those that stress either the power of distributed computing or that require large numbers of moderate-capability astronomical facilities.

The team therefore proposed to develop a demonstration capability with the goal of obtaining NASA Applied Information Systems (AIS) funding to undertake this kind of work. By gaining an early foothold in this burgeoning area, SwRI hopes to establish a kernel of capabilities within SwRI that can be applied to a much wider array of related research areas, potentially including energy exploration technology, environmental research, nondestructive evaluation work, and possibly even automotive research.

Approach - As a first web tool demonstration project, the team selected a tractable project to implement and test an easy-to-use graphical interface for the state-of-the-art "Vectoral Model" (VM) of cometary atmospheres developed by Dr. Michel Festou in 1981. In its original form, the Fortran version of VM required complex inputs and code changes from each user. First, a format-specific input file had to be created with values for many parameters related to the comet and the observations: heliocentric and observer-object distances; spectrographic slit or imaging aperture size and orientation geometry; the assumed values of gas production (Q) and associated timesteps; and the velocities, lifetimes, and destruction level of the parent and daughter molecules. Several of these parameters are not intuitive, and a formal interface to a database is needed to facilitate not only understanding the meaning of these values and their implications, but also in providing limit checks. In its original form, the Fortran VM code also required a manual, iterative approach, modifying the input values for each run until the results match those observed.

Accomplishments - The Web Vector Model (WVM) tool the team proposed to develop with this quick-look project has been fully implemented. WVM presents the user with various forms to collect input for the model. Parameter checks assure that physically realistic values are fed to the model. Graphical (as well as tabular) output gives immediate feedback, so that the effect of varying the parameters on different runs is easily understood. Along with descriptive text, links to references in the online literature, and interfaces with relevant online databases, WVM greatly simplifies the use of the VM and improves user understanding of the model and the physics of cometary comae. WVM can be found on the web at Development of WVM in FY1999 helped in securing an FY2000 award from the NASA AIS Program to develop additional web-based tools for astronomical research that nonspecialists can easily and reliably use.

Users complete a web vectorial model input form.


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