New and rather exciting images from a recent European Space Agency (ESA) can now be seen at there website. They show a composite picture of our galaxy, the Milky Way and our two adjacent dwarf galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. And they open this new knowledge to students, scientists and amateur observers everywhere.
These “clouds” can only be seen from South of the Equator, and sadly, despite my having spent a little over a month below the Equator, I have never been out of a city on a clear night to have the opportunity to see them myself. One of the exciting aspects of this data is that it is available now, almost immediately, to everyone.
This immediate availability of data is a revolution in science that has been happening since about 1980. Before that time an observational scientist, principal investigator (PI), would build an instrument (and if it were for space flight, fly it on a NASA satellite), take the data, and his team would write journal articles about the results.
Scientists who were not members of the team would not have general access to the data.
In 1980 a solar physics satellite called Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) had a PI who decided that he would open “his” data to anyone who wanted to use it. At the time this was quite controversial and there were many arguments for and against this policy.
I was a member of that team and the policy had tremendous positive impact on my career. Scientists who wanted to use the data needed help with the details, and I became one of the go-to people. My publication rate tripled and I was invited to many other countries to work with scientists there.
This data availability took a big step forward with the launch of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1995. It is a joint ESA/NASA spacecraft designed to look at the Sun and Heliosphere. I was the US project scientist for the mission.
My European counterpart and I decided that we would push very hard on the PIs to make their data available to everyone as soon as possible. We were successful and as one PI said, “the Sun shines for everyone.”
One of the telescopes turned out to be very popular with the public. The telescope called LASCO was designed to look at the outer solar atmosphere, which you can see during an eclipse of the Sun (as an aside, there will be an eclipse next summer on August 21 that can be seen as close to here as western Kentucky south eastern Tennessee and South Carolina).
An exciting thing for the public is LASCO’s ability to see sungrazing comets. LASCO images were put on line for anyone to look at immediately as they came down from the spacecraft. While we scientists didn’t have time to look at each image carefully to see if we could find a comet, students from around the world did. The results have been spectacular. They found thousands of comets. If you want to see more on this search “SOHO comets” or see www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2106/esa-nasa-s-soho-sees-bright-sungrazer-comet.
This openness of data has had a very positive and exciting effect on science and discovery.
This concept of ours in science seems to be contrary to what I am seeing in civilization in general. I am seeing more and more of “mine” not “ours.” An example of this in our local community can be seen in fox hunting. Thirty years ago landowners welcomed us to hunt on their land. The land we can hunt on now is greatly reduced, to a large extent because of the “mine” mentality.