Can't stop the APOD

Last week the US Congress decided to close down many of their Government services whilst they argue about a specific law that was enacted. For astronomy this has meant most NASA employees being made to stay at home without pay, closure of most of the NRAO, difficulties for National Science Foundation grants and closure of all NASA-hosted websites.

One of the sites affected by the closure of nasa.gov was Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). It has been running since 1995 - over two years before I got online - and many millions of people around the world now go to it every day for their fix of astronomy imagery.

Mirror, Mirror

As the shutdown approached, plans were arranged to keep it going. Although the GSFC-hosted servers would be turned off (and the apod.nasa.gov domain wouldn't work), neither of the two editors are directly employed by NASA so new APODs could still be created. These would then be shared with the volunteer team that runs the international mirror sites and also be hosted at Starship Asterisk (APOD's discussion forum) thanks to Alice Allen of Starship Asterisk. The mirrors would "mirror" what should be on the main NASA site. This ad-hoc distribution had already been tested last year when Hurricane Sandy closed down the servers at GSFC for a few days.

I'm one of the independent volunteers who helps with the mirrors, specifically the @apod Twitter account. My job is relatively trivial as I only have to tweet the title and a link and that occurs automatically (when Twitter aren't changing their API) via a script I wrote. Having a slightly uncertain URL to point to meant I turned off my script and tweeted it manually for a couple of days. I even woke up at the usual tweeting time of 5.30am to ensure a seamless service for the 701,000 followers. A few days in and my script is happily updating by itself again. I've spent much of this week using Twitter's search facility to find people who were upset that they couldn't get to the main APOD site. I saw quite a few tweets about broken apps so I've also contacted the creators of Windows Phone, Android and iOS apps to let them know about the mirroring. One of them got back to me.

APOD Search

Being without the main NASA-hosted site has meant that the APOD search feature wasn't available (none of the English mirror sites had it installed). I noticed a few people on Twitter saying that they needed it so I made one myself. It is fairly basic and will match text within link URLs too but you can do some basic negation (e.g. all APODs mentioning M31 but not M33).

To make a search engine I had to build a database of all the APOD descriptions and that got me thinking about other things I could do with that. Yesterday I played around with parsing out proper nouns and then using my LookUP service to get coordinates on the sky for non-Solar System objects (Solar System objects tend to change position so I've left them out for now). As a result I've made a heat-map showing the distribution of APODs. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they follow the Galactic plane with a few hot spots around other interesting objects. Can you spot the Large Magellanic Cloud and M81?

Can't stop the signal

Thanks to the tremendous efforts of Robert Nemiroff, Jerry Bonnell, Alice Allen and volunteers around the world, APOD continues.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 07th Oct 2013 (17:49 BST) | 2 Comments | Permalink

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