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Hayden Planetarium OSIRIS-REx presentation showcases visualization software

OpenSpace OSIRIS-REx

Using OpenSpace, visualizations of ongoing NASA missions can be portrayed. Image Credit: AMNH

The American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Hayden Planetarium held a special presentation on Monday, Sept. 12, featuring visualizations of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid return mission using its new open source software.

Harold Connolly, the AMNH research assistant and an OSIRIS-REx mission sample scientist who will take part in studying the sample returns in 2023, discussed his role in the mission. Additionally, the Museum’s director of astro-visualization, Carter Emmart, presented a simulation of the spacecraft’s planned orbit of asteroid Bennu for a year before collecting the samples that will be sent back to Earth for analysis.

The presentation is the first in the five-year OpenSpace project. AMNH was awarded a $6.3 million grant from NASA for new software to conduct public outreach about NASA missions through state-of-the-art visualizations and animations.


The OpenSpace software visualizes the various orbits OSIRIS-REx will make of Bennu. Image Credit: AMNH

Receipt of the award was based on AMNH’s highly successful public visualization of the New Horizons Pluto flyby in July 2015 via a working version of OpenSpace, software. The presentation was titled “Breakfast at Pluto” and conducted as a live worldwide Google hangout.

AMNH’s Digital Universe project – a scientifically accurate, complete three-dimensional atlas of the universe – is currently navigated with Uniview, software designed to visualize its static data.

OpenSpace is expanding Uniview’s capabilities, presenting dynamic data in 3-D, giving the public the chance to view processes and objects from multiple perspectives to the point they literally feel as though they are “flying through the universe”.

The software takes data from NASA probes and projects and visualizes it in real time. For OSIRIS-REx, that included images and a short animation showing plans to map and image the asteroid to find an ideal location to touchdown and take samples.

A work-in-progress, the software being developed is a group effort at AMNH. It is free and open to anyone interested in using it, from professional researchers to members of the public.

Further development of the OpenSpace software will be done in partnership with the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, the University of Utah’s Science Computing and Imaging Institute, and Linkoping University in Sweden.

“While our use of the Digital Universe has provided an illuminating view of the known cosmos, OpenSpace aims to bring this ‘seeing is believing’ approach a step further,” said Emmart. “Whether it’s dynamically simulating NASA missions, fostering scientific collaboration through an open source design, or synchronizing presentations with planetariums across the globe, OpenSpace hopes to take a sense of discovery that is usually reserved for those in mission control and make it a shared one.”

One of 27 institutions that have entered into cooperative projects with NASA to promote education and outreach in science, technology, engineering, and math, AMNH will use OpenSpace to improve science literacy among students, teachers, and members of the public by promoting NASA space missions.

Additional plans call for working with the world’s leading scientific institutions to create programs that will engage diverse audiences.

This project will be modeled on the museum’s annual “hackathon”, in which data scientists join software developers and designers in creating prototype software and apps in just over 24 hours that are geared toward solving a specific problem.

Museum representatives emphasize the main purpose of the programs funded by the grant is educating the public about the NASA missions and projects.



Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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