SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center Stars…

OPUS screenshot

OPUS screenshot credit: Mark Showalter

Congratulations to Mark Showalter and his team on NASA’s PDS Program Selection!

The Planetary Data System (PDS) is NASA’s program to archive, catalog and distribute all planetary data to the scientific community. The PDS is organized around a set of scientific “Discipline Nodes”: Geosciences, Atmospheres, Small Bodies, Plasma/Particle Interactions, Imaging, Radio Science, and Ring Science. After an open competition, on Monday NASA announced that the team led by Mark Showalter, Planetary Astronomer and Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center (CSC), has been selected to continue serving as the PDS Node for ring science.

Showalter was first selected to manage the Rings Node when the PDS began in the early 1990s. He brought his team with him when he moved from NASA Ames to the SETI Institute in 2005. NASA selected Showalter’s proposal for the newly-named “Ring-Moon Systems” Node, which indicates its expanded scope to archive and distribute data about moons and dynamics in addition to rings. This new name acknowledges the unique work performed by Showalter and his team.

“This is something we have done for a long time but now our Node name reflects that,” Showalter says.  The selection is for five more years, with NASA’s option to renew for five more.

Mark and his team deal primarily with data sets from Cassini, Voyager, New Horizons, Galileo and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

“In fact, we have a separate grant from NASA’s PDART program to build the ‘pipeline’ from the Space Telescope Science (STScI) into the PDS archive,” he notes.  “In the future, it will be possible to find all of Hubble’s planetary data products within the PDS archive and to use them just as if they were just another kind of mission data. This has not been possible in the past.”

This project develops state-of-the-art tools for finding new ways to enable scientists and the public to search for planetary data. The team’s flagship product is OPUS, for “Outer Planets Unified Search”. Other online services, such as ephemeris tools, help users identify future observing opportunities and to analyze the data from past observations. The Node’s underlying software supports all kinds of geometric calculations with planetary data. The team is now working toward making their entire infrastructure open source.

Collecting data with mission and project instruments is only the first step in the process. Before they can be analyzed and interpreted by the science community, data sets need to be calibrated, verified, and archived, and then they need to be made available in workable formats. This is a part of the process that Mark particularly enjoys.

“From my standpoint, what I love about doing PDS work is that, in addition to doing my research, I get to keep up to date on the latest developments in software and computer technology,” he says. “Also, it’s a chance to help other scientists and the public make the most of NASA’s amazing archive of planetary data.”

The PDS is also accessible to the public, which brings millions of Solar System and space images and other data products directly to your screen.


Nathalie A. Cabrol
Director, Carl Sagan Center
SETI Institute