Like to chase space probes? Track all active ones from moon and beyond

Crave's Michael Franco talks with the women who built Spaceprob.es, a colorful and easy-to-use new website that schools you on almost 30 active probes in our solar system.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Finally! A place to go to check in on all the space probes zooming through our solar system. Screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

When Ariel Waldman and Lisa Ballard took a look around space-related Internet sites recently, they discovered something missing. There weren't any sites that provided a comprehensive picture of all the space probes drifting through our solar system. So on Thursday, February 19, the women launched a mission of their own: Spaceprob.es.

The new website delivers the details on 29 active space probes. These, Waldman told me, include any satellite with which we still have communication. To be included on the site, the probe must also be at least as far away as the moon. Earth-orbiting satellites don't count.

By clicking on colorful tiles that show the different space probes in silhouette, you get taken to a page that fills you in on the probe's mission details, provides a sidebar with launch date and current distance from Earth, and gives relevant links for learning more. There's also a "current news" bar that keeps things fresh and relevant. You can arrange the tiles either by date of launch or current distance from Earth. Doing the latter, you'll see the tiles sorted from Voyager 1 at 19.55 billion kilometers (12.15 billion miles) away, to a collection of probes that are orbiting our moon at about 373,000 kilometers (about 231,771 miles) away.

The great-looking graphics are available to purchase as stickers, or there's a poster that highlights the 15 probes that are the farthest away.

Waldman, the graphic designer responsible for the tiles, says part of the inspiration to build Spaceprob.es was the fact that the Deep Space Network celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. NASA'S subsequent launch of the DSN Now site that lets the public spy on which Earth-based antennae are talking to different space probes at the moment also helped spur the site's development.

"I wanted there to be a place where you could at-a-glance see all the active space probes we humans had out there right now, regardless of what country or program launched them," Ballard added. "There are NASA/JPL sites that list only NASA missions and the like, but we didn't see any easy way for people to see what space robots were out there actively exploring right now. I was inspired by the site HowManyPeopleAreInSpaceRightNow.com and wanted there to be something like it for robotic space probes."

Waldman and Ballard, the dynamic duo responsible for Spaceprob.es. Ariel Waldman, Lisa Ballard

Both women who built the site have relationships with NASA as well as a keen interest in bringing astronomy-related data to the public. Ballard, who says her love of all things space was cemented by early episodes of "Cosmos" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," works as a programmer for the Rings Node of NASA's Planetary Data System (based at the SETI Institute) where she makes Web apps to help researchers and hobbyists access planetary mission data.

Waldman used to work for NASA in a program called CoLab, which aimed to share NASA data with the goal of getting more people involved with what NASA calls participatory exploration. "Unfortunately, the program only lasted for a short amount of time, so I left NASA and soon after built Spacehack.org, a directory of ways to participate in space exploration, inspired by my experience there," she said.

In 2014, Waldman was appointed to the external council for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. "It funds early-stage R&D for sci-fi-esque, yet credible technologies that could be applied to future space missions," she said.

Even though Spaceprob.es has a Spain-based extension, Waldman and Ballard live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I constantly buy new fun domains as bookmarks for future project ideas," Waldman said.

And what about the future for Spaceprob.es?

"My hope is for it to inspire others to apply whatever their unique skills, backgrounds and ideas are to space exploration and to realize that science data is just another material to play with," Waldman said. "Whether it acts as a call to create more space probes or a call to build more fun things on the Web using space data, I'm happy."