Searching the Sky

Image-recognition software for astronomy pictures brings professional and amateur astronomers together

3 min read

Every night, thousands of amateur astronomers in their backyards point digital cameras and telescopes at the same bits of starry sky that professional scientists scan from mountaintop domes. Although both groups collect thousands of images, they rarely use one ­another’s results. While amateurs are more interested in aesthetics, professionals need hard numbers.

In a first step toward ­bridging this divide, a team of ­astronomers and computer scientists has ­created pattern-­recognition software that may provide an easy way for the two groups to ­collaborate by making their astronomical images equally ­searchable. The Web-based application, scheduled for a beta release in early 2008 at, can analyze nearly any field of stars and, based on the particular geometric relationships of the stars, determine exactly which part of the sky the photo captures. The terrestrial equiva­lent would be a program that could pinpoint the latitude and longitude of your house from an aerial photograph of your street.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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