NASA's virtual institute powers solar system exploration

Virtual institutes — bringing individuals together in a collaborative virtual setting to solve complex problems — are rapidly gaining steam, with the latest being NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

SSERVI, a collaborative effort of nine research teams from seven states, focuses on questions concerning space science and human space exploration. The teams, in cooperation with international partners, will address scientific questions about the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and their near space environments.

Not much is required to collaborate. Full participation among teams requires only the following:

  • An H.323 standards-based video teleconferencing system with an HD camera, connected to a high-speed network capable of at least 2 Mbps.
  • A computer with Flash installed that is connected to a high-speed network to run Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro.
  • A dedicated operator to administer the systems and set up the conference rooms 30 minutes prior to the start of any meeting. 

NASA is no stranger to virtual institutes. Last March, the agency announced the opening of the Aeronautics Research Institute at the Ames Research Center to create new tools and technologies for reducing air traffic congestion and environmental impacts, improving safety and designing aircraft with unconventional capabilities.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), another NASA virtual institute, has been around for a while. It was developed two decades ago and is dedicated to the field of astrobiology and to providing a scientific framework for flight missions. Astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

An NAI presentation identified several more collaboration tools based on a needs assessment survey: 

  • Desktop video 
  • Web-based emailing lists 
  • Web-based photo directory 
  • Web-based, searchable information repository/knowledge management system
  • Scientific visualization/imaging capabilities
  • Room-based videoconferencing system
  • Wireless data sharing tools
  • Web-based document sharing
  • Desktop data sharing
  • Live chats/real-time online meetings

Of those tools, perhaps the most complicated is a Web-based searchable information repository/knowledge management system. 

According to Chris Mattmann, a principal investigator for the big data initiative at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “NASA in total is probably managing several hundred petabytes, approaching an exabyte, especially if you look across all of the domain sciences and disciplines, and planetary and space science," he told InformationWeek. "It's certainly not out of the realm of the ordinary nowadays for missions, individual projects, to collect hundreds of terabytes of information." 

NASA uses Apache TIKA, an open-source tool for detecting and extracting metadata and structured text from documents, to decipher the 18,000 to 50,000 file formats available online, said Mattman. Using open-source tools saves the agency money and is good for the government, he added. 

Other agencies that have built virtual collaboration spaces include Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service. 

The VA for Vets Virtual Collaboration Workspace is a site available 24/7 to veterans and military members to help them find civilian jobs. The site provides opportunities for veterans and military members to interact with employment coordinators, representatives, human resource professionals and coaches. 

The USGS’ National Institute of Invasive Species Science is a virtual consortium that uses a variety of Web applications for mapping and modeling invasive species to predict and reduce the effects of harmful non-native plants, animals, and diseases in natural areas and throughout the United States.

NWS’ Virtual Lab (VLab), built on an open-source Java portal framework, “enables NWS employees and their partners to share ideas, collaborate, engage in software development and conduct applied research.” According to NWS’ VLab website, the virtual collaboration will “reduce the time and cost of transitions of NWS field innovations to enterprise operations; minimize redundancy and leverage complementary, yet physically separated, skill sets; forge scientific and technical solutions based on a broad, diverse consensus; and promote an NWS culture based on collaboration and trust.”

Not every agency is a fan of virtual workspaces, however. The Internal Revenue Service has prohibited collaborative tools, whether third-party or agency hosted, for transmission of unclassified Federal Tax Information, due to potential malware infections, loss of data confidentiality and network attacks. Instead, “agencies should use agency-controlled Virtual Private Networks that provide FIPS 140-2 or later compliant cryptography,” the agency advises.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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