Riding the comet’s tail
While space is the ‘final frontier’ for many of us, for astronomer and planetary scientist Colin Snodgrass it is just the beginning. A specialist in comets—those mysterious objects that pass through our solar system on their silent, interplanetary journeys — Dr Snodgrass is part of the European Space Agency team working on the Rosetta Mission. During its twelve-year operational period, Rosetta was the first space mission ever to rendezvous with a comet, put a lander on its surface, and then fly with it on its closest approach to the Sun. It’s easy to see how a long and complex space technology project like Rosetta would generate vast amounts of valuable data. This kind of data can be used to help develop commercial projects back here on Earth, and to support innovations in daily life that could benefit us all.
“My work in planetary astronomy involves both looking outwards with telescopes, and observation of comets and asteroids from spacecraft, with direct links to Earth observation from space,” says Dr Snodgrass. “The former is increasingly entering the regime of Big Data, with major sky surveys producing terabytes of data each night, and discovering millions of small Solar System objects. Efficient processing and mining of the resulting data requires innovation in data processing techniques, which are directly applicable to training the next generation of data scientists, whether they are looking at astronomical data or similarly large and complex data sets on Earth.”
Another aspect of this work looks at how techniques used in the exploration of the Solar System can be applied to satellite observations of Earth. This can have applications for downstream data processing, and for the development of new satellite and astronomical instrument technology. Back on Earth, Dr Snodgrass combines his international project work with research and teaching at the University of Edinburgh, and at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. With its cutting-edge science and technology facilities, business incubator for tech-based start-ups, and popular visitor centre, the Royal Observatory is the very model of how Data-Driven Innovation serves the public, while taking on the big questions. Although it is located up on the strategic and scenic Blackford Hill, the Royal Observatory is not too far from welcoming local hostelries. Which is just as well, since, as Dr Snodgrass observed on Twitter recently, “All the best space missions start as drawings on napkins in pubs.”