NASA’s NuSTAR Takes Collaboration Into the Stars

Few fields generate as much research matter as astronomy and astrophysics. Incredibly complex mathematical equations, vast quantities of data and mountains of analysis lead to detailed scientific papers. However, the ability to share and collaborate on these projects is essential.

“There are enormous challenges related to keeping research and papers in sync,” says Brian Grefenstette, a research scientist in the Space Radiation Lab at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a member of NASA’s NuSTAR project.

The initiative, which processes data collected by the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) X-ray telescope, connects a group of about 150 scientists in 10 working groups scattered across the globe—including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and India. In the past, the group relied heavily on email to exchange crucial documents, including PDFs and PowerPoint decks.

“As all the information goes back and forth, people insert comments, and everything eventually winds up coalesced into a paper that is submitted to a journal like Nature or The Astrophysical Journal,” Grefenstette says.

This approach created some cosmic headaches, including information that has sometimes disappeared into a black hole. Since its inception, the NuSTAR group has exchanged upward of 25,000 emails, and it has thousands of files in its achieve.

In the past, emails sometimes bounced because attachments were too large, so they were rejected by servers. Simply put, the universe of data was becoming completely unmanageable.

“Manually exchanging files and information simply was not feasible,” Grefenstette explains. “It required far too much time sorting everything out and moving papers along.

Cloud Collaboration Offers a Quantum Leap in Efficiency

The NuSTAR group began exploring options that could lead to a quantum leap in efficiency. It selected cloud collaboration solutions provider Huddle. The technology offered features such as a central portal, a simple interface, strong project management features, versioning and syncing, a whiteboard and strong security.

“We are now able to organize, view and process information far more effectively,” Grefenstette says. In fact, the team is now able to use the portal to view every new observation as it is recorded, changed and commented on at every step of the process.

The collaboration software also helps the team manage calendars, discussion threads, file management and notifications. “It presents a very robust environment with Web 2.0 features,” he says.

Teams can access data across time zones, devices and platforms. The result has been stellar, as the scientists are able to work faster and more effectively.

“We have witnessed huge improvements in efficiency and achieved gains in output,” Grefenstette reports. In fact, the NuSTAR group has produced more than 100 published scientific papers—an incredibly large number for the astrophysics field and for academia in general.

Finally, the cloud-based software has greatly simplified IT and administration requirements. “We see incremental updates to the interface and constant improvements in features,” he notes, adding that there was little resistance to the change.

“People immediately recognized that this was a giant step forward,” Grefenstette says. “The platform makes it much easier to get to a finished scientific paper.”