Helioviewer’s future: an Internet for solar image data

June 17th, 2011

Post 1 of 5: Explore the sun on your desktop with Helioviewer
Post 2 of 5: Getting Started with
Post 3 of 5: Explore the sun in depth with JHelioviewer
Post 4 of 5: How it works: building the Helioviewer “back end” with JPEG2000
Post 5 of 5: Helioviewer’s future: an Internet for solar image data

New interactive visualization tools developed by the NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Helioviewer Project allow scientists and the general public to explore images captured by solar observing spacecraft. Previous posts explained the origins and aims of the Helioviewer Project, and the basics of a Web-based app called This final post in the series looks at the what’s coming next from the Helioviewer Project.

image of sun surface

So far, solar scientists who have seen the Helioviewer Project’s Web app ( and downloadable software (JHelioviewer) are intrigued, says Helioviewer Project co-founder Jack Ireland. “The reaction has been, ‘This is really cool; I’d like to see more.'”

Citizen scientists have begun to play with the tools, too. A growing number of time-lapse solar videos made using Helioviewer are now found on YouTube. Check out this tornado-like  feature on the sun by a non-scientist playing with and uploaded to YouTube. (It’s actually electrically charged plasma caught up in twisted magnetic fields.)

“We didn’t find this,” Ireland says. “Some member of the public, some citizen scientist, found this.”

So what’s next? Here are some new things to look for as the Helioviewer Project goes forward.

Access to raw data
Right now, you can view and visualize solar images in and JHelioviewerbut do not have direct access to the actual raw instrument data. The JHelioviewer team wants to change that. In future, it should be possible to click a link and download the actual raw data files being visualized, so scientists could work with them locally.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory image files (about 1Mb in size) that and JHelioviewer use are highly compressed versions of the raw Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) files, the most commonly used digital file format in astronomy. These FITS files, which astronomers use to do their research, are a whopping 64 Mb in size.

Global data sharing
Right now, all the solar images accessible to and JHelioviewer reside on Goddard’s servers. That’s mainly because some amount of pre-processing is required for the images to integrate seamlessly.

But Ireland and  the Helioviewer Project’s co-founders Keith Hughitt and Daniel Müller, hope to see Helioviewer evolve into a more distributed system, able to access multiple archives of solar images residing at different locations in the world.

“What you want is for the databases to talk to each other,” Ireland says. “So when I got to the Goddard database and say, ‘Hey, I want this kind of data,’ it says ‘I don’t have it, but this guy over here has it.’ That’s a distributed system.”

So, repositories in Europe could host images from satellites other than SDO, SOHO, or STEREO, or even archives of images from ground-based observatories. It would be like creating a parallel Internet for solar image data. Another way to look at it is as the equivalent of a live global broadcast on CNN. Different streams of solar images could be viewed and manipulated in or JHelioviewer, the way live feeds a network of correspondents around the world is combined in CNN’s studio in Atlanta.

Social annotation
The Helioviewer Project would also like to add “social annotation,” allowing individuals and groups to link comments, labels, and other forms of metadata to solar images. An individual could create, for example, a personal database of features of interest. Or groups of scientists and students could collectively share their annotations.

“The final level,” Hughitt says, “would be that kind of global level where you find something interesting and you want to share it with everyone — you don’t really care who — and that would go to some global feed where anyone could find it.”

Sound familiar? It’s the same concept behind the Google Earth system of layers or “skins” that users create. People share annotations consisting of locations, geographical features, businesses, landmarks, shipwrecks on the ocean floor — whatever — in the form of downloadable .kmz files that can be opened in the Google Earth browser. Ireland and Hughitt imagine similar capabilities coming to Helioviewer.

Make new apps
JHelioviewer is based on an open-source architecture. That means all the information and tools needed to build new functionality in the software — collectively known as its Application Program Interface, or API — are freely available. New functions could come in the form of downloadable mini-programs called plug ins. JHelioviewer was written to make this easy.

“One key thing that has not been used a lot yet, but could become more useful in the future, is that JHelioviewer has its own plug-in architecture,” Hughitt says. “So anybody interested could write their own functions and build them into JHelioviewer.”

Scientists, for example, could write a plug-in to bring data from a ground based solar observatory into JHelioviewer, or search for some pattern or feature of interest. Or imagine a plug-in that allows school kids to run a contest for who can find the most solar flares.

It would also be possible to rig JHelioviewer to browse image data from planets and moons. Now that the basic back-end infrastructure is in place, virtually anything users can dream up is possible.

In a pilot study, Helioviewer Project co-founder Daniel Müller is working with medical doctor Carlos Moro from the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, to create a plug-in for JHelioviewer that will allow doctors to view and annotate high-resolution microscopy samples of human tissue. As a spin-off, this plug-in will also be able to access and browse the vast archive of gigapixel images returned by the HiRISE telescope onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Observatory.

“Who knows what people can create?” Ireland says. “There’s only one way to find out. We have this infrastructure now that can show you the sun using as many different kinds of data as possible. So the next question is, ‘What can we do with all these images?’ and JHelioviewer are just two of the possible applications.”

LEARN MORE (Web app)

A collection of video highlights from 2011 (so far) created by users.

See a video made by “citizen scientist” LudzikLegoTechnics on YouTube.

The Helioviewer Project Wiki

JHelioviewer (downloadable software)

Read a Web feature about JHelioviewer and its capabilities

The JHelioviewer online handbook

JHelioviewer video tutorial on YouTube HD

ESA Web feature about JHelioviewer.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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