Celebrating the out-of-this-world photography from the Hubble Space Telescope

Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

NASA image release date April 17, 2012 This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars. By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA image release date April 17, 2012
This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars.
By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.

To see more of the amazing imagery produced by the HST, have a look at the Hubble Space Telescope: the first 20 years in pictures collection in The Telegraph.

Outer space … and the peaceful use thereof

I am sure more than enough blogs today will be denoted to the date 12-12-12, and the significance of this date in numerology, the Mayan calender and who knows what other esoteric contexts.

So, let me rather discuss another event celebrated today – on this day back in 1959, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs set up it’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, also known as COPUOS.

Space - a big topic for an UN subcommittee.(© All Rights Reserved)
Space – a big topic for an UN subcommittee.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The mandate of COPUOS is “to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, to devise programmes in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space.”

While this may seem a bit ‘out there’ to most of us earth-bound human beings, it is quite an interesting concept, and I guess in a way nice that there is at least some body responsible for keeping human extraterrestrial activities in check – we all know what silly things us humans can do with new things and domains that we don’t yet fully comprehend, and where we don’t quite understand the potential consequences of our actions.

The idea for the committee came up shortly after the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1958, right at the time when human interest (among both the scientific community and the general public) in outer space started seriously picking up, and about a decade before the first moon landing. Starting with 24 members, the committee has since grown to 71 members, making it one of the largest committees in the UN. Personally, the mind boggles when I look at the member list – you have to ask yourself what some of these countries could possibly contribute to the discussion on outer space. But then again, it is surprising what some countries spend their national budgets on…

Actually, thinking about it, perhaps it’s not strange that COPUOS is such a big committee. Space is, after all, a pretty big topic.  In the words of Douglas Adams: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Location, location, location (and time) – it’s GIS Day

November 14th is GIS Day, an annual event focusing attention on the field of Geographic Information Systems, its use and potential to impact on our lives.

GIS Day started in 1999 to create an opportunity for people to learn about geography and to discover and explore the benefits of GIS.

Spatially mapping your data enables you to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So what exactly is GIS? According to Esri, one of the leading international developers and vendors in the field of GIS, “A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.”

Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology.”

Spatially visualising information has many benefits. GIS enables us to map where things are and in what quantities and densities they are distributed. Modern GIS tools also allow us to map and visualise changes in these quantities over time. By seeing how various fields of data are dispersed geographically, and how they are changing, it is often possible to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.

This in turn leads to better decision making and improved communication.

GIS is a pervasive supporting technology throughout all aspects of modern society, with applications in business (banking, retail, etc), law enforcement, health, transportation, environmental systems, conservation, agriculture, forestry, mining, telecommunications, utilities management, research and education.

Capturing spatio-temporal location is key to GIS.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A GIS can typically employ and integrate data from a huge range of sources, as long as it has some key through which to relate it to the other data in the system. This key is spatio-temporal location – you need to know the location and time represented by the data. To map climate change, for example, you would include information on temperature and rainfall. But just having a list of temperatures and rainfall figures means nothing – to make it useful, you need some indicator of where and when each value was measured.

By promoting an understanding of this simple basic concept – that you massively increase the value and usefulness of any set of data by recording and including the spatio-temporal location of each data item – time and money spent on data collecting efforts can be leveraged so much more effectively.

Are you involved in data collection? Know someone who is? Even if space and time appear unimportant, record it anyway. Who knows – you may just discover something no-one’s thought of before…