Getting to know the space out there in a more scientific way has never been as simple (I wouldn’t say easy, since it still requires hours of study and efforts) as it is nowadays. Not only there are large online repositories of data of all kinds, you can also have access to software that allows you to do it.
[Note: this short post only aims at giving people indications about where they can find free online resources. I am not going to explain how to use the tool I talk about here – it would take far more than a post. But If you write hard SF, you may want to give it a thought.]
One of the most powerful (and free to use) tools I know about is called SAO DS9, and it’s an astronomical imaging and data visualisation application that allows you to analyse the spectrography of celestial objects, their composition and other cool stuff.
The software itself is platform free – works with all main operative systems (Win, OS X, Linux) – and there’s even a version that you can load from your browser, even though I’m not sure about the number of features available in this format.
The snapshot here gives you an idea of the kind of analysis you can carry out.
More importantly, where can you find raw data to process with DS9? Easy – there are plenty out there. There most important repository comes from the Harvard-based Chandra.
From the side description, “NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. Because X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 139,000 km (86,500 mi) in space. The Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA, hosts the Chandra X-ray Center which operates the satellite, processes the data, and distributes it to scientists around the world for analysis.”
I recommend logging in to explore Chandra’s amazing database. You can download DS9 here. And enjoy!