Caltech's "IPAC" Serves up Cool Videos about where Life on Earth came from, and other Astronomy Topics

Published : Monday, January 15, 2018 | 6:27 AM

Caltech’s “IPAC” Serves up Cool Videos

Image Courtesy IPAC Caltech

Over the years since it was established in 1985, IPAC – the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, inside the Caltech campus in Pasadena – has gathered such a large database of multi-wavelength data spanning the entire observed spectrum of extra-galactic objects, from gamma rays to radio frequencies, that it would be such a waste if they’re not shared with the human race.

Now, IPAC is doing just that: educating people about the universe and everything that has been observed by man about it, besides supporting NASA and its sub-agencies, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the world-wide research community to advance exploration of the universe.

Recently, IPAC started releasing “The Universe Unplugged,” a series of short videos on various topics in astronomy that feature Hollywood celebrities. IPAC’s goals are to pique general public interest in NASA’s scientific exploration of humanity’s cosmic origins, and provide pathways to further learning opportunities.

“By partnering with Hollywood, we hope to reach a broad audience, including populations whose participation in STEM are underrepresented,” says IPAC on its Outreach webpage.

The newest video in the series, “Life and Death of Stars: When Stars Go Boom,” features a scientist, played by Jerrika Hinton, of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, and a visualization expert, played by Wil Wheaton, from “The Big Bang Theory” and “Star Trek,” as they tell the story about a supernova – a star that is many times more massive than the Sun that ends its life in a spectacular explosion, producing many of the useful elements that are on earth.

The “Universe Unplugged” series presents exciting astronomical science in such playful ways that it would appeal to a broad audience of all ages, with a special focus on underserved communities in science.

To produce the videos, IPAC turns into something similar to a movie or TV production studio, with screenplays developed by a team of subject matter experts, science visualization specialists, and outreach professionals coming from the institutions included in NASA’s Universe of Learning program; these include – aside from IPAC and JPL in Pasadena – the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard, and Sonoma State University.

Funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Universe of Learning program and its integrated team of scientists, educators, and communications professionals work together and with the education community to strengthen science education and scientific literacy.

According to the IPAC website, the “Universe Unplugged” series leverages experiences gained from the production of celebrity and science videos for the Spitzer Space Telescope’s “IRrelevant Astronomy” and “Hidden Universe” podcasts.

Other than the video producers – the screenplay writers, the Holywood stars, and the production teams – IPAC’s scientific staff are engaged in forefront research spanning a broad range of fields in astrophysics and planetary sciences. Their areas of special focus include exoplanets; dark energy and cosmology; star formation and galaxy evolution; asteroids and the solar system; and the area in which IPAC has provided leadership for over three decades – exploration of the infrared and sub-mm universe.

Those 30 or so years have enabled IPAC to gather volumes of data from its work back in 1986 providing support for the joint European-American orbiting infrared tecope, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS, to the establishment of its Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) that made the data available to anyone who needed it, and then to its role as NASA’s U.S. science support center for the European Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), which ceased operations in 1998.

About that time, IPAC was designated as the science center for the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) – renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope after launch. IPAC also assumed the lead role in various other infrared space missions, including the Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) and the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX). IPAC also expanded its support to include ground-based missions with the assumption of science support responsibilities for the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS), a near-infrared survey of the entire sky conducted by twin observatories in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

In 1999, IPAC formed an interferometry science center, originally called the Michelson Science Center (MSC) after interferometry pioneer Albert A. Michelson. The Center was renamed the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) in 2008.

In 2014, NASA established the Euclid NASA Science Center at IPAC (ENSCI) in order to support U.S.-based investigations using Euclid data.

Today, the greater IPAC includes the Spitzer Science Center, the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute and the NASA Herschel Science Center.

Production of the “Universe Unplugged” video series is just one small way IPAC is doing to unload its volumes of data and to reach out to and educate ordinary people in ways that are a lot easier to understand, and certainly more enjoyable.

To learn more about IPAC and its work, visit www.ipac.caltech.edu.

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