6
Best Practices and Recommendations

As NASA builds and operates space astronomy observatories in the future, it will need to assign mission responsibilities to existing astronomy science centers or develop new centers. NASA is also responsible for assessing the effectiveness of its current portfolio of science centers.

Through the course of this study, the committee obtained written information and heard presentations from the leaders of the various science centers. The committee also invited experts, from research scientists to high school science teachers, to speak with the committee to explore the full range of center services. The chair of the committee also visited the science centers. Informed by these experiences and the data it gathered for the study, the committee makes three recommendations on existing and potential future astronomy science centers.


Recommendation 1. NASA should establish a large new science center only when the following criteria are met: (1) the existing science centers lack the capacity to support a major new scientific initiative and (2) there is an imminent need to develop an infrastructure to support a broad base of users.


The committee concludes that the four existing major astronomy science centers are sufficient to meet the needs of the astronomical community for the foreseeable future. These four centers—the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) at Goddard Space Flight Center, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)—have evolved to meet the community needs to support high-energy astrophysics (at HEASARC and CXC); optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared astronomy (at STScI); and far-infrared astronomy (at IPAC). In addition, a number of smaller missions provide their own user support while they are active and transfer the responsibility for data archiving to the major centers after their active phases.

Should the criteria in Recommendation 1 be met and a decision be taken to create a new center (or centers), the committee has identified a set of best practices that can assist in developing the new center(s) (Box 6.1).



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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers 6 Best Practices and Recommendations As NASA builds and operates space astronomy observatories in the future, it will need to assign mission responsibilities to existing astronomy science centers or develop new centers. NASA is also responsible for assessing the effectiveness of its current portfolio of science centers. Through the course of this study, the committee obtained written information and heard presentations from the leaders of the various science centers. The committee also invited experts, from research scientists to high school science teachers, to speak with the committee to explore the full range of center services. The chair of the committee also visited the science centers. Informed by these experiences and the data it gathered for the study, the committee makes three recommendations on existing and potential future astronomy science centers. Recommendation 1. NASA should establish a large new science center only when the following criteria are met: (1) the existing science centers lack the capacity to support a major new scientific initiative and (2) there is an imminent need to develop an infrastructure to support a broad base of users. The committee concludes that the four existing major astronomy science centers are sufficient to meet the needs of the astronomical community for the foreseeable future. These four centers—the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) at Goddard Space Flight Center, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)—have evolved to meet the community needs to support high-energy astrophysics (at HEASARC and CXC); optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared astronomy (at STScI); and far-infrared astronomy (at IPAC). In addition, a number of smaller missions provide their own user support while they are active and transfer the responsibility for data archiving to the major centers after their active phases. Should the criteria in Recommendation 1 be met and a decision be taken to create a new center (or centers), the committee has identified a set of best practices that can assist in developing the new center(s) (Box 6.1).

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers Recommendation 2. NASA should adopt a set of best practices as guiding principles to ensure the effectiveness of existing flagship and archival NASA astronomy science centers and to select the operational functions of any future centers. Recommendation 3. NASA should ensure that its astronomy science centers cooperate among themselves and with other agencies to develop strategies and plans for Developing common protocols and formats for proposal entry; Developing a universal infrastructure for data formats and metadata, archiving, and retrieval and analysis tools; and Providing curriculum materials and professional development programs for K-12 teachers. As data on cosmic phenomena become available in many wavelength bands, the process of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting them is becoming an increasingly important mode of astronomical discovery. Providing tools that are user-friendly, platform-independent, and common to all wavelength bands will enable the community to participate in multiwavelength research. For example, it is inefficient and wasteful not only of programming time but also of a working scientist’s time for the centers to require independent protocols and formats for proposal entry. Likewise, the process of discovery through analysis of multiwavelength data sets becomes much more efficient if the individual scientist can work with data that are stored in universal formats and can be retrieved and analyzed with common software packages. Moreover, these common formats and protocols should be compatible with data from ground-based as well as space-based observatories. These are the goals of the National Virtual Observatory (NVO). NASA should ensure that the science centers cooperate among themselves and with NSF-supported observatories such as Gemini and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to develop strategies to achieve this vision. The development of both K-12 classroom resources and infrastructure for the continued education of teachers is critical for ensuring U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century. The science centers can contribute significantly to this effort, but they do not have the resources to do everything on their own. NASA should ensure that its science centers cooperate among themselves and with other entities, particularly those supported by the NSF, to develop and implement a strategy for leveraging their EPO efforts to reach the education community.

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers BOX 6.1 Best Practices for NASA Astronomy Science Centers Mission Operations NASA astronomy science centers can best operate the spacecraft and process the resulting data if they Have close interaction among scientists, engineers, and programmers. Such interaction is especially important for off-site principal investigator (PI) teams. Have research scientists who participate actively in mission operations and in policy decisions. Have mission staff knowledgeable about the instrumentation and the satellite in order to provide detailed advice and technical support to the user. Provide adequate instrument calibration. Provide functional software by the time data first arrive. Science Operations NASA astronomy science centers can best support their scientific user communities if they Support robust, accessible, well-documented software. Use common rather than instrument-specific software across missions when possible. Maintain adequate online supporting materials and a help desk with adequate staffing and rapid turnaround. Provide user-friendly protocols and software for proposal entry and require minimal technical details for the initial proposal. Enable coordinated observations and proposal submission among multiple space- and/or ground-based observatories. Co-locate staff to support multiple missions with related scientific objectives. Retain key science center staff by providing them with evolving opportunities in either multiple missions or within the host/managing institution.

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers Give scientists at science centers guaranteed research time but not guaranteed observation time. Have a visiting scientist program. Data and Archiving Science centers can best process, store, and disseminate their data if they Provide rapid (<24 hr) response to requests for data that have been calibrated and archived. Support common analysis software and protocols that can be used by all the science centers. Maintain mission expertise at the archive centers for the long-term support of active users. Ensure that standards for access to all astronomical data archives are coordinated by an entity such as the National Virtual Observatory and that the infrastructure, including formats and analysis tools, is accessible and sustainable. Education and Public Outreach Science centers can best communicate their results to the public if they Involve staff scientists and investigators in education and public outreach (EPO) activities. Coordinate EPO efforts of smaller missions with EPO systems of the large NASA astronomy science centers. Develop classroom resources that Are designed iteratively through field testing and evaluation in actual classrooms. Include hands-on activities when possible. Support standards-based curricula. Are packaged with protocols for measuring learning effectiveness. Are accessible and cross-linked so that teachers can easily find them. Include teacher support (e.g., Web-based teacher guides, training for master teachers).

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