Canadian Researchers Are Google Mapping Blackholes and Supernovas

And a cellphone app is in the works, so you can observe black holes on your iPhone.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Supernovas and black holes are hard enough to track for NASA—and for space buffs with weaker telescopes, it’s even harder. But thanks to a little-known Canadian designed app called SkyWatch, cosmic events are being virtually mapped for your average astronomer.

Using raw telemetric information from NASA, SkyWatch displays space data on a Google Maps interface. It visually highlights cosmic events as they occur in real time across the universe. The SkyWatch team came up with the app during NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, and were the first Canadian team ever to win first prize in a category. Right now the app is a working prototype, and there's a new, slicker version in the works.

The app is powered with data from NASA's Gamma-ray Coordinates Network. “It’s basically a bunch of servers that’s housed in one of their facilities. Scientists input the data they want to share with other scientists around the world into the network, and the servers send out the data to other telescopes in various locations," said Dexter Jagula, the team project leader. 

Without an astrophysicist on board, Jagula and his team spent a large chunk of time deciphering the telemetric data they collected from NASA.

“The telemetric data is collected by scientists and transmitted for other scientists,” he said. “But for someone like myself or anyone who hasn’t delved into astrophysics, it’s a bit of a mystery.”

One of the main purposes for SkyWatch is to provide the common star gazer with the same data NASA’s scientists and astronauts use daily. The app is built entirely for a new generation of space enthusiasts. While input from scientists will be included, there are no designs for it to be marketed toward astronauts or engineers.

SkyWatch's interface.

According to Jagula, NASA is trying to broaden its fan base. Part of that is a plan to make space understandable to the common user.

“We knew the app had to be visual so it’d be easier for people to digest,” Jagula explained. “And with Google Maps, not only were we able to reconfigure it in a more stimulating manner, we could also use the simple interface to see where the messages had originated from precisely.”

After learning the physical location of the transmitted information, the Google Maps portion of the app is paired up with another Google product: Google Sky Map. Jagula said they combine Sky Map’s interface with telemetric data gathered on earth to come up with a real-time visual map of space. As a result, Jagula said users experience the  “celestial event in space... as close to real time as we can.” 

That being said, Jagula said the challenge of translating every space event NASA gathers is “almost impossible to demonstrate.” Instead, his researchers came up with algorithms that cherry pick celestial events of interest from NASA servers. 

“What we’ve done is generate a Parsons sort of algorithm that breaks down the integral parts that we know most people are going to care about so we can focus on updating those events,” he explained.

One of the important events Jagula wanted to keep an eye on was the tracking of their first confirmed supernova. The sighting was one of the “coolest” aspects to the development process so far, confirming Jagula’s belief in the software.

Although the competition is over, Jagula and his team are in close conversation with NASA. SkyWatch researchers will continue to connect with various scientists to understand more of the telemetric data. 

With the app, Jagula and his team are embarking on creating an education experience that will be used in classrooms alongside curriculum based textbooks. Jagula insists that visually replicating space events in real time is key to attracting a younger audience.

“We get thousands of entries coming in every day, so every few hours we ping the servers to see if there’s any new data coming in that we could store in our data base and translate on the site for people to view,” he said. 

Ultimately, Jagula and his team are shooting to have an app “sooner rather than later” for mobile platforms—then people can stay constantly tapped into space through the simplicity of their iPhone screen.