NASA and FDL with James Parr and Madhulika Guhathakurta
Play • 41 min

Guest host Sara Ford joins our old favorite Mark Mirchandani this week for a special interview with NASA and FDL. Our guests, James Parr and Madhulika Guhathakurta, give us a super cool, in-depth look at how NASA and FDL do what they do. Lika explains the important scientific studies she has worked on during her years at NASA and how she came to understand and appreciate Machine Learning. James introduces us to the Frontier Development Lab, a project collaborated on by private and public companies to leverage AI and Machine Learning in the research of science, exploration, and many other disciplines.

From saving Earth from asteroids to conducting research on our sun, James describes the process of solving these solar system sized problems, starting with creating a solid team. Machine Learning is a team sport, he says, and like making a Hollywood film, it takes many people from different backgrounds to find these solutions. The cloud has been integral in facilitating this meeting of the minds and the analyzing of data at FDL.

Later, we talk about the process of astronomical research before the current technological age and how techniques have advanced into the 21st century. James tells us the origin story of FDL and how they were tasked with applying Machine Learning to complex problems like planetary defense and space weather. Lika describes space weather and details how it impacts our planet. We talk about the role of data engineers in the team sport of astro-research and how data is collected and analyzed. Lika emphasizes the benefits of building a working system and how the processes can be applied to many other disciplines.

James and Lika wrap up the show with a look at what cool things they expect in the future.

James Parr

James is Director of the Frontier Development Lab, in partnership with NASA ARC and the SETI Institute. FDL has successfully demonstrated that structured interdisciplinary problem solving, sprint methodologies, radical collaboration methods and partnering with leaders in commercial AI, such as Google Cloud, are powerful amplifiers in applying AI to the science and technology goals of space agencies.

Madhulika(Lika) Guhathakurta, PhD

For the past two decades, Lika has led the development of Heliophysics as an integrated scientific discipline from which fundamental discoveries about our universe provide direct societal benefits. As the Lead for the Living With a Star (LWS) program for 16 years (2001-2016), she made possible the flagship missions (e.g. the Solar Dynamics Observatory, Van Allen Probes, Solar Orbiter Collaboration and Parker Solar Probe) including STEREO that would revolutionize our understanding of how the Sun shapes space weather in the solar system.

To accelerate innovation and scientific discovery she created funding mechanisms to shepherd traditional domain scientists out of their comfort zones to create LWS system science known as Targeted Research & Technology program and Focused Science Teams that foster competitive, yet collaborative environments that promote the crosspollination of ideas and technology.

To nurture the next generation of leaders in Heliophysics, she created the Jack Eddy Fellowship Program which has become an important channel for the professional growth of promising researchers and has been successful at promoting the careers of many women scientists reaching 50% parity with men.

Since 2017, she was the driving force at NASA Headquarters and at NASA Ames behind the growth of Frontier Development Laboratory, both in terms of the breadth of problem areas tackled as well as in the number of agency and industry partners (e.g. Google, Nvidia, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Planet). The types of innovative solutions include virtual telescopes, data fusion, edge computing, and autonomy and this approach will have an enduring imprint on the way science and exploration is carried out by future generations.

Cool things of the week
  • Prepare for Google Cloud certification with one free month of new Professional Certificates on Coursera blog
    • GCP Podcast Episode 239: Cloud Learning Services with Nandhini Rangan and Magda Jary podcast
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Collects Significant Amount of Asteroid site
  • NASA site
  • Frontier Development Lab (FDL) site
  • Oort Information site
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