Where astronomy meets medicine

Posted by Francis Reddy
on Monday, January 8, 2007
The star-forming region IC 348 is rendered as 3-D
contours, together with slicing planes, in 3D Slicer.

"Astronomical medicine" isn't a word combination I ever expected to come across. Yet, today, while scoping out papers presented at the American Astronomical Society's Seattle meeting, I caught sight of a report on something called the Astronomical Medicine Project.  Color me intrigued.

Known less formally as AstroMed, the project is part of Harvard University's Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC). In 2005, the AstroMed team began tweaking medical-imaging software so it can work with volumes of survey data on the Perseus, Ophiuchus, and Serpens star-forming regions.

Astronomers can obtain high-resolution data on small patches of sky in a multitude of wavelengths, but teasing out the big picture from this mass of information isn't easy. It's a bit like trying to understand a giant mosaic by scrutinizing a few well-separated tiles. Imagine being able to merge all astronomical data on a given volume of space — and then explore it as a surgeon might a patient's MRI or CT scan.

Toward this end, Douglas Alan and his team at IIC are adapting the free, open-source medical-imaging programs 3D Slicer and OsiriX to work with data from the COMPLETE Survey of Star-Forming Regions. The project's goal is to characterize the physical nature of the gas that forms new stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

After that, who knows? The team says astronomy won't be the only discipline to benefit from AstroMed. The software changes astronomers need should result in visualization tools sufficiently generalized that they'll also be useful for geophysics, meteorology, and other fields.

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