Citizen Scientist / Freelance Mathematician and Software Developer
How did you become a NASA citizen scientist?
I was looking for interesting and significant challenges in science – especially space science – where a lot of mathematics and software engineering can be applied in a presumably responsible way. I also wanted to be able to work independently to pursue the challenges per my interests. I was thinking of NASA, but I didn't seriously expect there would be any chance to get involved. Eventually, with the help of people more closely related to NASA, opportunities opened up, and I did what I could to make use of them.
I noticed the Mars Curiosity rover landing on Mars in August 2012. I found The Planetary Society closely reporting about the mission. Emily Lakdawalla [Senior Editor of The Planetary Society] played a key role by pointing me to Unmanned Spaceflight.com, a project of The Planetary Society where amateurs are exposed to the mentality of the professional and amateur space community.
After following Curiosity's journey, and taking a close look at the data it returned, science team member Mike Caplinger at Malin Space Science Systems played another key role. His company provided cameras for Curiosity, as well as JunoCam for the Juno Jupiter probe. A few weeks before Juno's 2013 Earth flyby, he provided a simulated JunoCam test image, and I immediately saw that this project would be challenging and rewarding enough to spend more time with.
Juno's Earth flyby opened the opportunity to work as closely as practically possible for members of the general public on an ongoing space mission. Some of my early Earth flyby image products even made it into NASA talks, including NASA's budget plan. So, working on the JunoCam image data didn't just appear to be interesting, but also relevant in a larger context. With those real-world data returned after Earth flyby by JunoCam, I had almost three years' time to develop more advanced software that would be able to convert raw JunoCam image data into photorealistic color images.
The development turned out to be successful, and my image products drew attention. I was contacted by the Juno staff, and step by step, my collaboration with the Jupiter observing community, and especially with the Juno team, intensified. I was invited to conferences, submitted abstracts to some of the conferences, prepared talks, and contributed to papers.
"Be aware of your interests. Improve your skills. Stay patient. Each small step in your own development is toward your individual success. Nobody was born as an expert."
What are your favorite citizen science projects to work on?
Currently, I'm committed to JunoCam. There are so many interesting challenges to accomplish with JunoCam image data that I've barely even had time to take a look at the other interesting Juno instrument data.
There are other citizen science projects that would be of interest to me – be it environmental studies in biology or analysis of astronomical data. But I decided to squeeze out as many results as I can from JunoCam data, so I can't say too much about other ongoing interesting citizen science projects.
I like projects where a broad range of technical skills can be trained. The JunoCam data demand image processing skills, including the treatment of data in three spatial dimensions, and in time. Can those data be used to retrieve Jupiter's fluid dynamics? How does fluid dynamics work? How can it be modeled numerically? Can we forecast Jupiter's weather on the basis of this data? How can the raw data be displayed in an immersive way, and which technical challenges are to be solved from the level of bits and bytes to the final science, or public products?
This broad range of questions, together with the chance to be the first person in history to see and discover new science data and knowledge, and to make it accessible to a wider audience, is probably my motivation to work on the project.
What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies!
Before doing science with NASA, I worked as a consultant for private industry. One of the advantages of the current science project is that I can tell privately and publicly about much of what I'm doing. My hobby is my job. I try to bring the two aspects together.
What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?
The answer to this question is too long to fit into a short paragraph. I think one of the biggest highlights, from a discovery point of view, was being probably the first person in history to see the motion of Jupiter's south polar cyclones after Juno's Perijove 3 flyby. The JIRAM [infrared imager] instrument was switched off due to a technical issue. So JunoCam was the only instrument with a chance to observe Jupiter's south polar region. I processed the images into a south polar view, derived a short animation, and saw it! Since the camera was only poorly calibrated at that time, I presume nobody else succeeded, or even tried, to do such an animation.
Since this was to be considered a success for the whole Juno team, it was appropriate to publish the discovery as a success for the whole team. I would have never been able to make the discovery without the years of work of many people, especially NASA's budget and infrastructure. So, besides the individual ambition to make a discovery, one should always be aware of the fact that those discoveries are actually made by the people who do all the work that gets you to the point to see it pay off.
What first sparked your interest in space and science?
That's difficult to reconstruct. I guess the Apollo landing on the Moon in 1969 played an important role, but it was more than that. In my childhood, I saw a widespread spirit and enthusiasm for discovery, probably remnants from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I shared that spirit. One of the first books I read in my childhood was a dreamlike adventure to the planets at the end of a rainbow. I liked it so much that I wrote it up and sent it to our local newspaper when I was just 8 years old. The headline made it onto a page of the newspaper, where stories written by children were published. This is why I know that my interest in space and science was sparked early in my childhood. But it took decades to return seriously to these roots of interest.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a NASA citizen scientist?
I think that the biggest challenge was to obtain the awareness and confidence that it is possible at all for citizens and especially for citizens of foreign countries, to collaborate with NASA. I knew that I had the technical skills to accomplish the tasks involved. But I didn't remotely consider that there might exist any way to collaborate. The other challenge was gaining the insight that living for a moderately interesting day job instead of living one's dreams is not an unavoidable fate.
What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA?
In the internet age, things are becoming much easier than they used to be. Be aware of your interests. Improve your skills. Stay patient. Each small step in your own development is toward your individual success. Nobody was born as an expert.
It has almost always been a tough way to become an expert. But you are tough. Train your toughness. Your honest interest and curiosity are the source of your toughness and ambition. Don't rely on or expect recognition from others. Pursue your path in your field of interest, because it's interesting by itself.
Take recognition as an extra and stay humble and respectful when you are successful. It's only a matter of time before the next challenge appears insurmountable, but that's just at first glance. You'll need your emotions and force of will to overcome new challenges.
With this beginning, look for an internet forum that supports your interest and where there are sympathetic people. Follow the forum for some time, until you are sure it's a community you'd like to become a member of, and that you are ready to contribute material that will be interesting for other members of the community. Become a member of the forum. Other members will guide you. You will improve your technical and community-specific social skills. You will learn about citizen science projects in your field of interest, and you and other community members will be able to assess your capabilities.
If you succeed in joining a suitable forum, some of the members will be professionals in the field and they will show you the way to participate in NASA citizen science projects appropriate for your skill level.
Who inspires you?
There are certainly hundreds of historical or living people I feel inspired by. But even more inspiring is the subject itself that I'm working on. Look at the cloud tops of Jupiter and try to understand them. Try to understand the physics at work and the underlying mathematics. Try to make your results intuitive for others.
A great deal of my inspiration is sourced in the challenge itself that I'm working on. Another inspiration is the challenge of creating something new and unprecedented. In searching for solutions, I frequently find already published, inspiring ideas and questions from other authors.
What are some fun facts about yourself?
The coolest place within our universe I've ever been is Earth. You'll understand, after the eyes and other senses of your avatar have been in the dry and icy deserts on Mars, or in the hostile radiation belts over the magic stormy beasts around Jupiter for years, and you come back home from your adventure and walk a little around in a green oasis in springtime on our pale blue dot.
I remember a colleague complaining about rain when we went outside during a rain shower without protection several years ago. I replied that it was sweet water. I find sweet rainwater so cool after a week or two in a small boat on the stormy and salty sea, with everything wetted by the spray of salty seawater.