Educator Features

Our Dynamic World
01.10.06
Earth as seen from space
As the crew of Apollo 17 made the last trip to the moon, they sent back an amazing souvenir. They were the last crew to travel so far from the Earth that they could see the entire planet at once, and they took a picture of that incredible view. That picture became known as the "Blue Marble," and is an iconic representation of our home planet.

Image to right: The "Blue Marble" is one of the most famous pictures of our planet taken from space. Credit: NASA

Today, images of our home planet taken from the vantage point of space are commonplace. In addition to those like the Blue Marble that show the entire world in one picture, there are many, many pictures taken from orbit showing detailed views of specific areas. Images like these give us ways of looking at our world that are completely unlike ordinary surface-bound photography.

A computer image of the Earth with colored bands indicating differences in sea surface temperature
Image to left: SVS animations depict a variety of phenomena, such as this visualization of typhoon regions indicated by sea surface temperature. Credit: NASA

But as incredible as these images are, they only tell part of the story. The Earth is not a static place, and a still photograph cannot capture the majesty of our constantly changing world. That's where NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio comes in. The SVS team creates animated sequences of environmental phenomena based on time-series data. These animations put those data into motion, showing such things as hurricane movement across the ocean, seasonal changes in the environment, the effect of El Niño on water vapor and rainfall, the spread of wildfires, and the growth of urban areas. SVS animations do not rely on photographs. Instead, as the name implies, SVS animations depict these phenomena by creating graphic representations of environmental data. They translate a variety of measurements into a visual form users may more easily understand.

For 15 years, the SVS has produced animations based on data from observations of environmental phenomena. To make those animations even more accessible to users, the team created the Scientific Visualization Studio Image Server.

A computer image showing fires in Africa in 2002
Image to right: Regional events, such as these wildfires in Africa in 2002, can also be visualized in SVS animations. Credit: NASA

Through the image server, the team's animations are available in new ways. Data is correlated to geographical locations. This correlation allows the animations to be wrapped around computer-modeled globes, showing how the phenomena they depict play out on the actual curved surface of the Earth. As the animation is playing, the user can turn the globe to see areas of interest and zoom in to examine details. Descriptions, legends and other useful information can accompany the animations. Multiple animations can be overlaid at the same time, allowing users to observe phenomena in context of others.

For example, NASA's World Wind application allows users to take a virtual tour of the world, zooming in from the vantage point of a satellite in orbit to a close-up view of any place on Earth. Viewing SVS animations through the World Wind application allows users to have that same level of control. SVS animations were also used during the development of Windward, an educational game created by Cable in the Classroom in partnership with NASA and other organizations.

Related Resources
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio
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NASA Scientific Visualization Studio Image Server
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NASA Learning Technologies -- SVS
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NASA World Wind
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Windward: Outsmart the Weather
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services