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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

NASA needs help from citizen science

August 26th, 2014 by Susan Smith

A recent CNN report announced thatNASA is asking for the help of citizens in viewing hundreds of thousands of images taken from space over the years, from the 1960s Mercury missions to the present images snapped from the International Space Station.

North Korea is barely lit when juxtaposed with neighboring South Korea and China.
North Korea is barely lit when juxtaposed with neighboring South Korea and China.

Via The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, NASA is making these images available for citizens to examine.

NASA says the hope is that the images “could help save energy, contribute to better human health and safety and improve our understanding of atmospheric chemistry. But scientists need your help to make that happen.”

The catalog contains more than 1.8 million photos, about 1.3 million of them from the space station and roughly 30% of them taken at night.

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The CNN report said that before 2003, night images from the space station could be blurry, even with high-speed film and manual tracking, because the station moves at about 17,500 mph. In that same year, astronaut Don Pettit used a drill and assorted parts he found on the station to cobble together a “barn-door tracker,” a lower-tech predecessor to the European Space Agency’s NightPod, which was installed at the space station nine years later.

According to the report, NightPod’s motorized tripod compensates for the space station’s speed, providing what NASA scientist William Stefanov says are the highest-resolution night images from orbit. Satellites collect data more regularly, but the photos tend to be lower resolution. “Now the pictures are clear, but their location may not be, which limits their usefulness,” the NASA news release says.

Citizen science has a better handle on location than the night images from the space station and satellite imagery. The Complutense University of Madrid is spearheading efforts to get citizen input and organize the photos.  They have broken down the  the images into three components requiring different levels of participation:

1. Dark skies. This is the easiest project, as it requires no scientific expertise. “Anyone can help” by sorting the images into the categories: cities, stars or other objects, said Alejandro Sanchez, doctoral student at Complutense.

“Without the help of citizens, it is almost impossible to use these images scientifically. Algorithms cannot distinguish between stars, cities and other objects, such as the moon. Humans are much more efficient for complex image analysis,” he said.

2. Night cities. Looking at night images, citizen scientists can tap their knowledge of local geography to match photos with positions on maps. Residents of a city can more easily identify a city’s features than those who don’t live there, Sanchez said. The data will be used to generate light maps of cities.

3. Lost at night. This is the trickiest, as it aims to identify cities in photos with 310-mile circumferences.

Figuring out the photos is difficult because those looking at the images don’t know what direction the astronaut was pointing the camera, only where the space station was when the image was taken. Hundreds of volunteers have stepped up so far, classifying almost 20,000 photos, but NASA says multiple individuals should review each image to ensure accuracy.

The “open atlas of nighttime images” can be used to assess economic conditions, Sanchez said. One photo of the Korean Peninsula shows how North Korea is a barely lit swath of land between the heavily illuminated nations of South Korea and China. (see first image)

Madrid and Berlin are additional examples. Spain is facing a major economic crisis and Madrid is much brighter in astronaut images than Berlin, that sits in the country with the healthiest European economy. The lights of the cities could be used to assess whether a city is conserving energy better than another one, or whether city lighting is being used for safety purposes or to assess the effects of light pollution on human health.

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Categories: analytics, citizen science, Citysourced, climate change, cloud, crowd source, Google, GPS, image-delivery software, integrated GIS solutions, LBS, Leica Geosystems, lidar, remote sensing, resilient cities, satellite imagery, sensors, spatial data, SPOT 7 satellite, urban information models, USGS

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