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$32.5M NASA Funding Agreement Supports Study of Comets, Asteroids and Meteorites

UMD Astronomers to Expand and Upgrade Database of Small Space Objects

By Kimbra Cutlip

outer space

In an artist's conception, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readies itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. Under a NASA cooperative agreement, UMD will continue to oversee data about asteroids and other small space objects for the agency.

Illustration by NASA Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA has committed $32.5 million to extend a cooperative agreement with the University of Maryland, allowing it to continue overseeing the space agency’s data on asteroids, comets, meteorites and other small objects in space—an area of study where UMD research has made major contributions.

The agreement will enable the UMD-managed Small Bodies Node (SBN) of NASA’s Planetary Data System to improve and expand services through 2026, including providing increased public access. The funds will also support the Minor Planet Center, an SBN subnode jointly operated by Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution. The Minor Planet Center serves as the international clearinghouse for reported positional data on all comets and asteroids, classifies the orbits of newly discovered objects and supports efforts to follow up on near-Earth objects by astronomers.

“Every time NASA runs a mission to explore something in space, there is all this data collected—whether it’s spectral data, radar data, telescope data, photographs—and our goal is to make sure that data is not lost and is useful to future generations,” said James Bauer, a research professor in UMD’s Department of Astronomy and principal investigator for the Small Bodies Node.

The cooperative agreement was initially forged in 2015, but the SBN itself was established at UMD in 1995 by the late UMD astronomer Michael A’Hearn, who led the Deep Impact Mission, which successfully collided with comet Tempel 1 to reveal its sub-surface composition. Since its establishment, the node has archived data from the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission and other missions. More than 101 peer-reviewed journal articles have referenced Small Bodies Node datasets.

“The Small Bodies Node is an exceptional example of the University of Maryland's commitment to strengthening research and education through federal partnerships,” said Amitabh Varshney, UMD's interim vice president for research and dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. “The Small Bodies Node plays an important role in discovery and advancing our knowledge of the universe.

In addition to housing NASA mission data, the SBN maintains the online archiving facility, a web application that allows individuals to submit data to be archived and made available to the public. The SBN also provides multiple tools for public access to all of the data it houses. On average, users download more than 10,000 images per month from SBN.

Renewal of the agreement will allow the SBN to upgrade its platform and expand services. Among the upgrades, the Small Bodies Node will:

  • Improve user access to the Minor Planet Center’s main database,
  • Incorporate NASA-funded telescope surveys of the whole sky,
  • Update the archive to NASA’s new data standard,
  • Move the archive to the cloud and move the node website from a UMD-administered site to a NASA-managed web service, and
  • Create products to allow other archives and libraries to access the data.

With the expanded services, Bauer said the team expects to scale up SBN holdings from around 100 terabytes of data to thousands and to develop specialized tools to make data searches quicker and more efficient. The team also plans to increase accessibility of the data among users with different computer systems and across a variety of application program interfaces. 

“As more analytical tools become available, we can continue to learn from the data, but it needs to be categorized and identified in a standardized way so that people can recognize and use the data several years or even decades later,” Bauer said.

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