Features

Picturing Earth From Space
04.20.06
More than 9,000 students are discovering Earth through pictures they've taken from a camera on the International Space Station.

Two students use a map and the Internet to find coordinates for their next picture
Students worldwide participated in the 21st International Space Station Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students, or "EarthKAM," mission in February. Four times a year, since 2001, students have been able to be the eyes of the camera on the orbiting space lab.

Image to left: Seventh-graders Emily and Jessica use a map and the Internet to determine the latitude and longitude of their next picture. Credit: NASA

For weeks prior to the mission, students at a Texas middle school studied news clips in search of current events from around the world that would make interesting targets.

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+ ISS EarthKAM Web Site
Cindy Evans, who holds a doctorate in earth sciences, works in Johnson Space Center's Image Science and Analysis Group. She had been visiting the school for several weeks to help them prepare for their mission.

During the first part of the course, the students concentrated on local events like the fires in Texas. By the end of the second week, they were looking at global events like the dust storms in the Middle East, Evans said.

After translating their knowledge and interests in global geography and world events into image requests, their requests are collected by a team of engineering and science undergraduate students from the University of California, San Diego. Once compiled, it's sent to Mission Control at JSC in Houston and then sent to the ISS 220 miles in space.

NASA scientist uses a globe to show a student a potential photo target
Though just in seventh grade, student Aviana has taken pictures of the landscapes of South America, storms over the South American islands of Tierra del Fuego and the Outback of Australia.

Image to right: ISS Deputy Program Scientist Julie Robinson uses a globe to showcase a potential photo target to sixth-grader Lucas. Credit: NASA

"It's really incredible to see these things from space because it doesn't make much sense from here. But now you can see how things change over time like areas that were affected by the tsunami," Aviana said.

"There's nothing pretend here. The students are engaged in real time operations. These are the future explorers that are going to design missions to Mars. Here, they're learning about science, technology, engineering, math, geography and mission operations. This is a major education initiative," said Julie Robinson, who has a doctorate in philosophy and ecology. She is the deputy program scientist for the International Space Station.

The Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific Ocean
Image to left: A picture of the Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific Ocean captured during an EarthKAM mission. Credit: NASA

At the beginning of the mission week, pictures are taken with a 50 mm lens to get pictures of broad areas. Then, as the students get more familiar with their targets and how to predict the weather and the station's orbit, a 180 mm lens is used. With this, students are able to capture snowcaps on mountains and even large ships in the ocean.

As of March 2006, a total of 937 schools and more than 66,000 students from the United States, plus 15 other countries, have participated in EarthKAM missions. According to Brion Au, EarthKAM operations manager, this mission has generated 1,974 pictures from about 118 schools, bringing the total EarthKAM pictures to 19,660.

Some of the best pictures from previous missions were of the fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Those pictures have been published in various scientific books, Robinson said.

Photo taken from space showing smoke from forest fires on Sumatra
By using their new skills of interpreting images of Earth taken from space, students are now using their pictures for research. One group of students captured fragile coral reefs of the Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific. These pictures provide clues on the formation of atolls to what kinds of plants and animals thrive in this remote island and how people support their daily lives.

Image to right: Images of the smoke and fires in Sumatra during the 1997 El Niño event were captured during an EarthKAM mission. Credit: NASA

Other students are exploring the desert landforms in North Africa to the foothills of the Himalayas. Some are looking at the ocean's surface to understand why certain features are highlighted by the sun's glint.

Not only have these pictures been educational, but they've been inspiration for future expeditions as well. Sixth-grader Eric, who has always been interested in space, dreams of traveling to the Caribbean.

"The water is so clear, you can even see straight down to the bottom, even from space!" Eric said.

Debbie Nguyen/JSC