The faces behind JunoCam: Justin Cowart
JunoCam is the sole color visible light camera on the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. The instrument’s primary purpose is to engage the public in citizen science and to obtain the first images of Jupiter’s poles. In fact, many of the raw images returned are processed by citizens with a passion for space exploration. SpaceFlight Insider reached out to five of these individuals. The first in this series is Justin Cowart, a geologist and amateur astronomer who has had a passion for space since childhood.
Engaging the public
When NASA invests in the design and development of a spacecraft, their primary focus is on gaining scientific understanding. However, sharing with the public the excitement of space exploration is generally high on the space agency’s list of boxes to check off.
The Juno team included a camera for educational purposes right from the beginning. The spacecraft’s public awareness campaign utilizes the visible light instrument to involve the public in citizen science.
Including JunoCam, the spacecraft has nine cameras among its instrument payload. This includes two star cameras for navigation, four stellar compasses to aid in locating its magnetic field sensors in inertial space, as well as infrared and ultraviolet imagers.
JunoCam was designed and manufactured by Malin Space Systems based in San Diego, California. Elsa Jensen, the camera’s operations engineer at Malin, said it was the first time a NASA mission engaged the public by voting for the majority of the pictures an instrument would take.
The camera didn’t waste any time taking breathtaking images, either. In fact, it began capturing photos of Jupiter and the Jovian system nearly a full month before it actually arrived at Jupiter.
The first photos were taken every 20 minutes and then spliced together to create the first video of the four large Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Compiling the images together, JunoCam managed to show the movement of Jupiter’s largest, and longest-known moons as they orbited the giant planet. This was also the first time humans were able to see the motions of the cosmos with real images.
The video was viewed by millions of people since it was released in July of 2016. The intent of the camera’s inclusion on the mission was achieved in that very first video, but it certainly hasn’t stopped there.
The instrument’s goal to capture the attention of the public and to inspire people to learn more and get involved, has already more than succeeded in achieving its goals. Once the raw images are returned, citizen scientists get involve to process the photos.
To learn more about the creation of these images, last summer, SpaceFlight Insider reached out to five citizen scientists who are bringing the cloud tops of Jupiter to life.
Justin Cowart lives near Stony, Brook, New York. He is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D in geosciences from Stony Brook University. He said his main focus is on geologic remote sensing and primarily studies the composition of Martian bedrock to understand its climate and environment during its first billion years of history.
SFI: How did you hear about JunoCam?
Cowart: “I’ve been excited for JunoCam ever since it was announced.”
SFI: Were you interested in space prior to hearing about JunoCam?
Cowart: “I’ve been interested in space since I was a little kid. I grew up reading books with pictures from the Viking and Voyager missions. Even before I got into processing NASA data for scientific reasons, I tried to keep track of the many missions we’ve sent to the planets.”
SFI: What interested you about JunoCam?
Cowart: “What interested me most about JunoCam was the chance to get the first really good, up-close pictures since the Voyager missions. The Voyagers captured a lot of what we’re now seeing with JunoCam, but now we’re getting the chance to see wide swaths of the planet all at once and seeing a lot of new features the Voyagers simply weren’t there long enough to find. I’m particularly excited about the polar views that JunoCam has been returning, because our best views of those regions date back to Pioneer 11, which had a very primitive imaging system and only hinted at a lot of the complexity we’ve been seeing with JunoCam.”
SFI: On average, how long does it take to process a JunoCam image?
Cowart: “Depending on how much a JunoCam image has been compressed, it takes me between 30 minutes and an hour to work on each image. I have to thank Gerald Eichstädt a lot for his processing pipeline, which makes my own work mostly an issue of artifact reduction and trying to bring out some of the latent detail in these images.”
SFI: What software or equipment do you use to process your images?
Cowart: “I use a combination of Photoshop CS5 and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) G’MIC plug-in to process these images. I go back and forth a lot between the two – Photoshop is where I learned how to do image processing and is more intuitive for me, but some of the tools in GIMP for handling noise reduction are much more powerful. With GIMP I have more flexibility and variety with the filters I can apply, which allows me to pull out latent detail in the images without over processing them, in my opinion.”
SFI: Do you have prior experience processing images? What about specifically scientific images?
Cowart: “I’ve been processing space images for a few years now. I started out reprocessing vintage data from Viking and Voyager. That’s because many of the images floating around from these missions were processed either during the mission and have suffered multiple generations of printing and reprinting that have degraded their quality, or were reprocessed in the early 90s and compressed for use on the early web. Neither really show what those spacecraft were fully capable of. I’ve expanded a little bit to get into more modern missions like Mars Express HRSC, which have collected a huge pile of beautiful images that have never been processed for public release. Currently, I also professionally process remote sensing data, primarily from Mars Odyssey’s THEMIS imager. However, while the products of that work are scientifically interesting, they’re often messy-looking and not particularly interesting from a space imaging standpoint.”
SFI: Do you see your images more as art, science, or a combination of the two?
Cowart: “I see my work as a mix of science and art. I am for a sort of non-scientific realism – processing the images so that they would look like you would see through a powerful telescope. There are ways to scientifically process the images, like how the color filters match up to how a human eye perceives color so you can weight them accordingly. But the human eye is has a really large dynamic range and also is quick to adapt to different lighting. There’s a kind of guesswork in how to reflect that. JunoCam has also recorded a lot of subtle detail, and I want the images I process to reflect some of that detail. There are science reasons for doing so – particularly in some of the convective systems we saw during the Perijove 6 imaging campaign where we can see the shadows they cast on surrounding clouds with some careful processing – but I also want to preserve as much of the subtle contrasts that you see when you look through Jupiter in a telescope. I think there’s enough wiggle room for how you balance the competition between extracting detail and preserving an aesthetic that it’s as much science as it is art.”
SFI: Do you have goals and/or hopes for the images that you produce, and if so, what are they?
Cowart: “I mainly process these images to show with everyone what it’s like to be high over another planet, especially one as majestic as Jupiter. There are a lot of people who also do this, but I think it’s valuable to see the different approaches to the data. There’s a range of people who do this who focus primarily on an aesthetic, or extracting as much information from the images as possible, and I want to share my own particular approach with how to do that.”
SFI: What are some of your favorite JunoCam images that you have processed?
Cowart: “I really love the pictures taken over Jupiter’s north pole. There are just so many swirls there it looks a lot like a Van Gogh painting even before processing. It’s also one of the more challenging places to process – there’s a lot of detail there so it’s a lot harder to find the right balance between enhancing that detail and preserving the impressionistic nature of the clouds there. It’s like enhancing a Monet painting. Do you focus on bringing out individual brush strokes to figure out how that painting got made, or do you leave it alone to enjoy the delicate play of soft color? I’ve also really enjoyed working with pictures that show some of the smaller scale meteorological phenomena at work in the Jovian atmosphere. It’s neat to see small things like clouds casting their shadows on other clouds, gravity waves from individual convective updrafts, or cloud wave trains forming in the wake of powerful disturbances.”
SFI: What are some of your favorite JunoCam images that others have processed?
Cowart: “I’m really impressed by Sean Doran’s work, especially his videos of Juno coasting over the clouds. It’s a small taste of a terrifying thrill of approaching Jupiter at such a steep angle you feel like you’re falling in. I also really enjoy Bjorn Jonsson’s work, as he’s probably the most knowledgeable about how to scientifically process an image to how the human eye would theoretically see the scene. Last but definitely not least, I’m indebted to Gerald Eichstadt’s work. He’s independently produced an entire pipeline to handle the bulk of the preparatory work I’m not sure I could do myself, and the images he produces are nothing short of fantastic.”
SFI: What has the response been to your JunoCam images? Was that the response that you anticipated? What have you learned about the importance of public outreach in the process of processing JunoCam images?
Cowart: “I think I’ve gotten a pretty good response to my images. My tweets and flickr pages have gotten a fair amount of traffic, which means they’re being seen and shared, which was my goal to begin with. They’ve also sparked a couple conversations about Jovian meteorology, so it’s been a nice lead-in to talking about some of the more scientific aspects of what Juno has found.”
SFI: What do you love/enjoy about space?
Cowart: “I think what I enjoy about space the most is the exoticism of another world. They’re just so totally different from Earth. It also helps me appreciate what we have here.”
SFI: What inspires you?
Cowart: “The opportunity to be the first to see something no one else has seen before. A lot of images I’ve looked at haven’t had more than a cursory glance over, and it’s very easy to miss small things that might be important. And even if I don’t find anything, it’s still useful to share some of the results of space exploration which are often downplayed.”
SFI: If there was one thing that you could say to someone who looks at your images, what would that be?
Cowart: “I would tell them that I hope they enjoyed it!”
Part two of this five-part JunoCam series will be published March 27, 2018. Be sure to return to SpaceFlight Insider to learn about Kevin Gill, a software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
*An earlier version of this story had numerous errors in it. Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, was kind enough to provide corrected information to SpaceFlight Insider. Below is the corrected story. We sincerely regret the errors.
A native of the Greater Los Angeles area, Ocean McIntyre's writing is focused primarily on science (STEM and STEAM) education and public outreach. McIntyre is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador as well as holding memberships with The Planetary Society, Los Angeles Astronomical Society, and is a founding member of SafePlaceForSpace.org. McIntyre is currently studying astrophysics and planetary science with additional interests in astrobiology, cosmology and directed energy propulsion technology. With SpaceFlight Insider seeking to expand the amount of science articles it produces, McIntyre was a welcomed addition to our growing team.