IT and Mathematics for Space Exploration -Introduction to the Special Theme

by Peter Allan and Pierre Rochus

We stand at an exciting point in the exploration of space. Water, essential for life as we know it, is found almost everywhere. Probes to the planets are making new discoveries, such as ice on the surface of Mars and methane on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Telescopes, both in space and on the ground, are delivering unprecedented quantities of data that are radically changing our understanding of the universe. We used to think that the matter of which we are made was only a small fraction of the total matter content of the universe and that dark matter made up the bulk. It now appears that dark energy, which as yet we do not understand at all, is actually the dominant component of the universe, causing it to accelerate, not slow down.

Looking back over three quarters of a century of space activities enables us to consider the next fifty years on a much more solid basis than the pioneers of space: the Russians Constantin Edouardovitch Tsiolkovski (1857-1935) and Serge Korolev (1907-1966), the Germans Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) and Werner von Braun (1912-1977), the Americans Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945), the Belgians André Bing and Karel Bossart. They had a dream…, we live it! The first era of the space age was one of experimentation and discovery. We are now on the threshold of a new era of the space age, devoted to mastering operations in space. Unlike the earlier space era, in which governments drove activity in space, certain space applications, such as communications, are being driven by the commercial sector. Space enters homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and government offices through its applications for transportation, health, the environment, telecommunications, education, commerce, agriculture and energy. Space-based technologies and services permit people to communicate, companies to do business, civic groups to serve the public and scientists to conduct research. Much like highways and airways, water lines and electric grids, services supplied from space are already an important part of our global infrastructures.

Many activities on earth are no longer possible without spacecraft and we cannot imagine the future that new applications space research will bring us in addition to meteorology, monitoring, disaster predictions and telecommunications. It gives rise to spin-offs and developments in often unexpected applications for every day life. In short, space research is a challenge to our imagination as far as technical achievements are concerned and addresses the study of fundamental questions for humanity. Our security and economic well being depend on the nation’s ability to operate successfully in space. With the dramatic and still accelerating advances in science and technology, the use of space is increasing rapidly. We live in an information age, driven by needs for precision, accuracy and timeliness in all of our endeavors - personal, business and governmental. As society becomes increasingly mobile and global, reliance on the worldwide availability of information will increase.

Space-based systems, transmitting data, voice and video will continue to play a critical part in collecting and distributing information.

Think of space and you think of advanced technology, but pure mathematics has an important role to play too. The most magical predictive-mathematical event in the history of science was the discovery of Neptune by astronomers John Couch Adams and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier who calculated the position of a new planet which they thought was altering the orbit of Uranus. Since 1996, the presence of 105 planets has been confirmed around 91 stars. New candidates are announced frequently and others await confirmation. So we can now safely say that planetary systems are the norm rather than the exception.

This issue with the Special Theme: IT and Mathematics for Space Exploration presents some of the tools which make all these discoveries and applications possible through highly sophisticated software to control spacecraft and payloads, transmit data across the solar system, process and analyze the vast quantities of raw data and make the data easily available to all through grid technology. The progress of astronomy is about to hit a wall in terms of processing, mining and the interpretation of huge datasets. A fully scalable and distributed information system to overcome this problem for wide-field imaging is presented. The same principles are being applied to other sciences. Synthetic Aperture Radar enables us to remotely look at Earth and Planetary Surfaces with great accuracy. For the Earth, commercial providers can complement the photographic images with data that identify the location and type of foliage in an area and provide evidence of recent activity there. They can produce radar-generated maps with terrain elevations, transmit this information around the globe and combine all of it into formats most useful to the customer. This service is of increasing value to farmers and ranchers, fisherman and miners, city planners and scientists. To increase safety in Space, the Threat of Space Debris and Micrometeoroid to Spacecraft Operations must be controlled and mastered. Large-Format Science-Grade CMOS Active Pixel Sensors for Extreme Ultra-Violet Space Science will improve space weather missions. Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos are present in many fields of Astrodynamics. Computation of distributions of Finite Time Lyapunov exponents provides valuable information on the local stability of the orbits. When dealing with huge sets of model parameter values, Grid-based techniques make such explorations faster than common techniques.

Please contact:
Peter Allan, CCLRC, UK

Pierre Rochus, Centre Spatial de Liège, Belgium