Scientific dicoveries - made easier with Huddle

NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

NuSTAR deployed the first orbiting telescope to observe the universe by focussing high energy X-ray light emitted by some of the most powerful, energetic sources in the universe. The primary science goals of NuSTAR are broad, ranging from mapping the remnants of exploded stars to studying the extreme physics around black holes to observing microflares on the surface of the Sun.

Some of the biggest black holes in the universe are buried deeply in gas and dust clouds, and until recently were not clearly visible using even the most powerful telescopes. Enter NuSTAR. The NuSTAR mission has deployed the first orbiting telescope to focus light in the high energy X-ray (3 - 79 keV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. These high energy X-rays penetrate the obscuring clouds, giving NuSTAR a clear view of the central black holes. 


"Implementing Huddle for collaboration has proved incredibly useful”


Astronomers at Durham University using the data from NASA’s NuSTAR satellite observatory, and working with more than 150 astrophysicists from around the world, have come together with a mission to identify the most elusive, hidden, black holes. They succeeded. Their discoveries are particularly important because it allows astronomers to extrapolate the population of such black holes in the universe, which they estimate could run into the millions. With individual working groups spread out across the globe, it was important that the members of the NuSTAR mission find a way to collaborate securely and easily. George Lansbury is a third year PhD student at the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University in the UK. His research focuses on the study of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN): the sites of mass accretion onto supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies. Most of Lansbury’s current work is based on data from the NuSTAR observatory.

“The ability to share observations and findings and work together effectively is key to the success of the project, so implementing Huddle for collaboration has proved incredibly useful,” added Lansbury. 

“Huddle enables us to work together more efficiently,” adds Brian Grefenstette, another member of the NuSTAR project and a research scientist at the Space Radiation Lab at Caltech. “Most of our working groups have regular meetings with the status reports, including high level images and spectroscopic results, collected in slide sets that we post to Huddle. This means everyone gets to see the research progress in a very open way. We quickly discovered it’s much better to post to Huddle than to use email, which creates unwieldy chains 50 messages long and with large 40Mb attachments – they’re a nightmare! With Huddle we have a central repository and each subgroup can organize their work by astronomical target in folders with version histories – it’s a major improvement over what we used before.” 

Huddle maintains a record of research contributions

The NuSTAR research findings are used to create scientific papers, and Huddle has proved invaluable in sharing drafts and enabling the incorporation of input from contributors. The originating author will put the first draft of the proposed paper on Huddle, and use the sharing features to invite comments. With Huddle, drafts can be shared with all collaborators, or selected people and/or groups. Comments are incorporated and subsequent iterations shared until the final approved version is submitted to a scientific journal for acceptance and publication. For the NuSTAR team, it’s typical that any research group member who contributes to the paper is included as a co-author. Using Huddle means the team can have an efficient record of the contributors and the comments. 

The NuSTAR project teams also use Huddle for scheduling frequent teleconferences. “There are around ten working groups within the NuSTAR team - many people are members of more than one group. Those of us on the instrument team are members of all of them. With Huddle, tracking all of those meetings is very efficient and we can make sure that we’re not double booked. Huddle gives us somewhere that is easy to access for all our users, irrespective of which team they are on,” said Grefenstette. 

“With all the different time zones involved, it’s extremely useful to have a tool that takes time zones into account,” added Lansbury. “In addition, during the calls it’s quite common for people to present slide sets, and we always share these via Huddle. It makes things so much faster, having them all in one place. The Huddle locking/unlocking features, and discussion boards underneath documents, are useful too – people can put queries and questions there at any time. Anyone can upload and share anything – there are no specific rules, making it open, responsive and inherently collaborative.” 


“It’s partly thanks to Huddle that the NuSTAR collaboration has become very efficient in producing scientific papers" 

As well as its own observations, the NuSTAR surveys draw in data from space agencies and other telescopes around the world. Huddle is used to compile all this information to create a holistic picture. “When NuSTAR detects a black hole, the observations are uploaded to Huddle together with relevant information from other sources,” said Lansbury. “I then create a slideset and upload it to Huddle, and anyone from my research group – which comprises some 50 people – can see it there. If they can access one of the ground-based telescopes positioned around the world, they can use the information on Huddle to aim the telescope and ‘see’ the new black hole. It’s a really quick and efficient way of compiling information so all concerned can have visibility as soon as possible.” 

There are currently more than 400 black holes identified from the survey, each of which has its own individual summary and slide set on Huddle Lansbury concluded: “Huddle is wonderfully efficient for sharing information. It has enabled an international team to collaborate effectively and make new discoveries. NuSTAR has had a big impact, and Huddle has been an important part of that.” 


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