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Process

STORYTELLING WITH CHANDRA DATA

How do you make the high-energy Universe accessible? At Chandra, we study and apply new technologies in processing, compositing and coloring data to make sure the Chandra images released are scientifically accurate and aesthetically pleasing – paying attention to both truth and beauty, so to speak. The science data drives the story. Read about some of the people involved on the technical side of this storytelling process, moving the Chandra data into visual or tactile formats in 2D, 3D and beyond.


Kim Arcand, PhD
visualization scientist

Dr. Kimberly Kowal Arcand is the Visualization scientist and emerging technology lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Kim is a leading expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum. She uses data to tell stories, combining her backgrounds in molecular biology and computer science with her current work in the field of astronomy and physics. Recent projects include translating astronomical data into 3D prints and virtual reality.

Tell us about your background
I completed my undergraduate work in molecular biology. My interests then were on bacteria and disease, so I was looking at things like Ixodes Scapularis (the Deer tick) and the spirochaetes that can be transmitted to humans which can cause Lyme Disease. But as I neared the end of my degree I found that I was more attracted to the computer as a tool to tell stories about science than I was to any bugs or bacteria. (The physics and chemistry courses I had to take for that degree, however, would become incredibly useful in my work for Chandra.) I moved into a computer science graduate program after graduating in biology, and the programming/coding/application development of that was a key tool in my future work with Chandra. I would say it was really the mix of science and computer science that helped move me into astronomical data visualization and related projects.

Tell us about your current work
One of my current areas is studying the perception and comprehension of astronomical images by experts and non-experts. There is often a sense that these images of astronomy are these cold objective things. But, the hardware we use to take the observations was designed and built by people. We use scientific software to make the data representations that was written by people. The image processing through that hardware/software pipeline is then done by...people! And we all have our own biases, understandings, aesthetics, etc. There are a lot of choices made all along the way from the original 1’s and 0’s of a data set to the finished, colored visual representation of the object. We’ve done a fair amount of research into the psychology of aesthetics and user response around our images (see astroart.cfa.harvard.edu for papers) because knowing your audience while you’re creating the images is critical. Topics like which colors to apply, what scale to use, what cropping to do, how much smoothing is required — we’ve researched that to see what’s best for expert to nonexpert viewers.

What is your favorite thing about this type of job?
I joined the staff for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory about a year prior to its launch in 1999. Chandra is a cutting edge piece of equipment to this day, an X-ray telescope that studies very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and black holes. About 19 years into the mission, I can still say I learn something new every single day. And on some days, I feel like I get to sit in the Universe’s cathedral. These tall towering places that have been around for seemingly forever, where you can simply absorb the beauty of the architecture. I get — and we all get really, through the public space program – a front row seat into that deep, infinite beauty.

What is your favorite object you've ever worked on and why?
I really like supernova remnants, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is a magnificent tool for observing them. Cassiopeia A was one of the very first images I ever worked on not too long after Chandra launched.

I’ve been obsessed with Cassiopeia A (Cas A) for the past few years. Since Cas A is one of the first objects Chandra ever looked at and is also a calibration target, we have over two million seconds of observations taken over almost 20 years. That is a deep, rich data set to work with. We’ve done so much with that data, we’ve been squeezing all the lemon juice we possibly can out of it: 2D images cut by energy or emission from chemical elements, 2D images changing over time, 3D representations (data-driven), and Virtual Reality (VR) experiences. We've 3D printed it small, large, in single color and multi-colors. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.

What is something new or interesting you're working on or looking forward to working on?
We're currently working on a multimodal representation of that Cas A VR data using sound and touch as well for a truly explorative, immersive and *accessible* experience of the data. And, of course, the science that has come out of the Cas A data sets has been incredible. For example, scientists now know that the star sort of turns itself inside out when it explode, that it comes apart in two phases (spherical part first, then jets), what the velocity of the outer shockwave is, etc.

Kim

What would you recommend to others interested in this type of career in data processing?
I would recommend a good background in coding if you’re interested in astronomical imaging/visualization. There was a survey done (by the American Astronomical Society I think) a couple years ago that showed perhaps 95% of astronomers needed to code to do their jobs, and only about 5% had formal training in coding. For me it was a combination of science & computer science that did the trick. Now I get to work with 2D images, objects changing over time, 3D representations and VR experiences of NASA data.

Kimberly Arcand

Lisa Frattare
scientific image processor

Tell us about your background
I have a master in astronomy from Wesleyan University in CT. That landed me working as a data analyst and later an image processor for the Hubble Space Telescope at Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD. I worked on the Hubble Project as a member of the news team and Hubble Heritage Project. My main role was to help astronomers make their scientific data into an exciting image that would appeal to fellow scientists and the public alike. During my 20-year tenure at STScI, I worked on over 300 Hubble images, observed with the telescope, worked on 3D imaging of several targets which led to two IMAX films, and did a small stint on processing X-ray data for the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Tell us about your current work
I now work directly with the Chandra X-ray Observatory news and outreach group. Although X-rays look different than optical data, the mechanism of X-ray data processing is the same. Once again, I am able to convert scientific data into an exciting image that is sometimes rendered as just the X-ray data, and other times it is composited with other wavelengths like optical, infrared and radio.

What is your favorite thing about this type of job?
It has much flexibility with several of us in different states. The group comes together for specific items in which we all contribute a piece. Objectives and goals of what we aim to do are handled efficiently and transparently, which means there isn't much wasted time; nearly everything we work on gets published. We are a very productive group.

What is your favorite object you've ever worked on and why?
The active radio galaxy Hercules A needs to be at the top of my list for favorite multi-wavelength objects. I worked on the observing team to acquire the Hubble data, and helped produce the optical (Hubble) + radio (VLA) image. The radio lobes stretch out so much farther than the optical data. Throw in the X-ray data and the galaxy is now represented in a multitude of wavelengths that show off its beautiful, albeit complex, structure.

Hercules A

What is something new or interesting you're working on or looking forward to working on?
We have been visiting many previously imaged Hubble objects and augmenting them with Chandra data. It’s like viewing something familiar but with new glasses that gives the appeal of a new perspective. I look forward to marrying many more Hubble and Chandra objects.

What would you recommend to others interested in this type of career in data processing?
Observational astronomy is a rocking field. Much of the software needed to analyze telescope data is user friendly and meant to be accessed from anywhere. The NASA observatories, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer put their data in public online archives. Anyone with a computer and a passion can learn how to process images from the archival data to make incredible pictures of the cosmos.

Lisa Frattare

Nancy RA. Wolk
scientific image processor

Tell us about your background
I have a BS in Physics and Astronomy and a MS in Astronomy and Planetary Sciences from Stony Brook University. I started working at the Chandra X-ray Center in 1996 as a data analyst. I studied software at the Harvard University Extension School and started to program data reduction software for Chandra. I decided to change things up and moved to Science Operations in 2003 working on the ACIS detector. In 2013, I briefly left CXC to work in aerospace technologies, but decided to come back in 2017.

Tell us about your current work
My main focus is preparing imaging for press releases for the public. The goal is to present the data in a way that is both pleasing to the eye, but scientifically accurate. We don't want to give the public the wrong impression of astronomical objects, so we have to be very careful about being accurate in our representations of the data. I am also working on 3D visualization of astronomical data via 3D printing. We have a small supernovae collection and it's fun to present these objects to the public.

What is your favorite thing about this type of job?
I love working with the public. My favorite part is when I explain to adults and kid how our bodies are the result of dying stars. The kids are really shocked to realize that we wouldn't have iron in our blood without a star exploding. It really brings around the concepts of stellar evolution and recycling.

What is your favorite object you've ever worked on and why?
I have to be honest, Cassiopeia A is my favorite. Not only do we have the most data on this object and we have both a 3D model and a virtual reality experience based off the data, I was the person who ran the first Chandra observation of Cas A through the software on the day the data returned to Earth. I was thrilled to see the tendrils of gas and the pulsar that had previously been unimagined by other telescopes. It was proof that our hard work in building the telescope and the software to process the images worked.

CasA

What is something new or interesting you're working on or looking forward to working on?
I've been very excited to create new virtual reality experiences with data sets from multiple telescopes. My first love is star forming regions, and I want to be able to create the experience of flying through one of the most well known regions, the Orion Nebular Cluster, based on the actual data we have on the stellar positions.

What would you recommend to others interested in this type of career in data processing?
My advice would be to embrace mistakes. We always learn when we make mistakes and find new pathways forward. Try something a little different and if it doesn't work out, figure out why and move forward.

What is something new or interesting you're working on or looking forward to working on?
We have been visiting many previously imaged Hubble objects and augmenting them with Chandra data. It’s like viewing something familiar but with new glasses that gives the appeal of a new perspective. I look forward to marrying many more Hubble and Chandra objects.

What would you recommend to others interested in this type of career in data processing?
Observational astronomy is a rocking field. Much of the software needed to analyze telescope data is user friendly and meant to be accessed from anywhere. The NASA observatories, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer put their data in public online archives. Anyone with a computer and a passion can learn how to process images from the archival data to make incredible pictures of the cosmos.

Nancy RA. Wolk

Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics
60 Garden Street,
Cambridge, MA 02138 USA
Contact Us
cxcpub@cfa.harvard.edu
617-496-7941
Creator/Manager: Kimberly Arcand
Art Direction/Design: Kristin DiVona
Web Developer: Khajag Mgrdichian


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