Enabling More Science, Faster
A modern, web-based user interface led by our engineers allows astronomers to analyze data about exoplanets more quickly.
Astronomers often pull data from several resources while conducting research about an astronomical object. Beginning in 2018, the process became much easier for those who study exoplanets. The Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) released Exo.MAST, a web-based user interface that provides data and services to the exoplanet community. Users are able to find and download targeted multi-mission exoplanet data, accompanied with data visualization and analysis tools. The regular addition of new data means that observations made by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which began pouring data into MAST this fall, also now appear in Exo.MAST.
In the case of exoplanet WASP-18 b, this means you can rapidly display (and access) data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), the Hubble Space Telescope, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and TESS—from ultraviolet to infrared light. Better yet, much of it is represented in dynamic phase-based data coverage plots, which means it’s easy to determine which observations occur at critical points of a planet’s orbit and whether they are at the same orbital phase as other observations shown.
The team created Exo.MAST using an agile approach for the software development, which included automation, continuous integration/continuous delivery, and is built on a modern microservices architecture on Linux. The microservices operate and may be deployed independently, which isn’t permitted by traditional, service-oriented architectures. The new architecture also makes it significantly easier to deploy new versions or new services independently and more frequently. The result is a state-of-the-art, industry-standard example of a system microservices architecture.
This architecture also allowed a tight feedback loop, permitting astronomers to provide their input at frequent integration points. Engineers implemented and deployed software updates continuously, completing the project in six months. Now, when a contributor comes up with a new idea, it is easy to integrate into the project. In fact, engineers may add hundreds of new services to Exo.MAST in the future.
This engineering project is only one example of our work that led to significant collaboration, quick reviews and turnarounds, and a slew of creative solutions—and meant the team was buzzing with excitement and satisfaction, all while benefiting the astronomical community.