Windows on Earth (Windows on Earth) - 12.13.17

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery

ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
Windows on Earth is a suite of software tools to help students, scientists and astronauts explore Earth from space. It provides an augmented reality system to manage Earth observation targets, support on-orbit photography and help scientists and the public explore the wealth of images available. The Earth visualization engine creates views of Earth as seen from orbit, with realistic features, colors, topography, day/night transitions and targets for Earth observation and photography.
Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending

The following content was provided by Daniel Barstow, M. Ed., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details

OpNom: Windows On Earth

Principal Investigator(s)
Daniel Barstow, M. Ed., TERC, Cambridge, MA, United States

Andy Turnage, Association of Space Explorers – USA, Houston, TX, United States

Technical Education Research Centers (TERC), Cambridge, MA, United States

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
National Laboratory Education (NLE)

Research Benefits
Information Pending

ISS Expedition Duration
September 2012 - September 2014; March 2015 - March 2016; March 2016 - April 2017; -

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
Spaceflight Participant, Richard Garriott, used an earlier version of Windows on Earth during his one week on the ISS, during Expedition 17, in 2008.

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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • Technical Education Research Centers (TERC) and the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), in collaboration with key partners, are launching a revolutionary set of Earth exploration tools to help students, scientists and the public explore Earth from space. Windows on Earth helps scientists select targets and work with images, students and the public explore and learn from the images, and the crew members themselves better manage their Earth observations and photography. This integrated package helps all of us experience the majesty of space and, from that unique vantage point, gain new insights about our home planet Earth.
  • TERC and ASE support full end-to-end integration, in collaboration with NASA's Crew Earth Observations (CEO) program, from selecting targets before the mission, managing targets and on-orbit photography, aligning and annotating images post-mission, and large scale public access through museums and via the web. The core software engine is upgraded, and each component has enhanced capabilities based on lessons learned from the initial version.
  • This new package provides fundamental benefits to students, scientists, crew members and the public, as they make more effective use of Earth photographs to explore, understand and learn about our home planet. For this new phase, this team has expanded to include NASA's CEO program, which manages target selection, communicates targets to the crew members and provides public access to the full archive of photographs. CEO integrates Windows on Earth into their technology and operations.


1. Support CEO’s research agenda - Windows on Earth supports the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) Earth observation and photography research program. As such, Windows on Earth is a tool in support of CEO's research agenda, dealing with monitoring and documenting Earth features and dynamic processes. The team integrates CEO-selected targets as part of the daily uplink, incorporates the full list of mission-based targets, and communicates with CEO on an on-going basis to see how effectively the WinEarth tool helps astronauts take more and/or better photographs for the CEO research. Refer to CEO’s own research agenda for more details.
2. Research power of tools to help astronauts do Earth observations - On the other hand, Windows on Earth has its own research agenda, to understand how astronauts observe and photograph Earth, and to experiment with new on-orbit tools to aid them in this process. For this research, the research team focuses on the power of the window-side computer display that simulates the view out the actual window, with augmented reality feature labels and a tightly integrated system to display targets for photography. To conduct this research, the team builds and flies a series of increasingly powerful iterations of the software, with new or revised components (such as including clouds, color-coding targets and pause-and-zoom), based on feedback from the astronauts before, during and after a mission. The team also reviews photographs taken by astronauts of CEO's designated targets as well as astronaut selected targets as evidence for the value of the software to help identify features and targets. Post-flight, astronauts use the software for their own exploration and dissemination of images.
3. Research student and public understanding of ISS-based Earth observations - Windows on Earth conducts comparable research on the ground, with students and the public, using the web-based simulator of the on-orbit software. The team investigates how well the software can convey the experience of observing Earth through the International Space Station (ISS) windows, including the scale, speed, day/night transitions, cloud cover and target identification. The team conducts an on-going online survey of users of the software to support this research, and to experiment with ways to make the experience more effective.
4. Research student and public use of Earth images - Since the ground-based software also provides direct access to the photos taken by the astronauts, the team researches student and public interest, understanding, use and sharing of the images. This includes both the daily downloads (typically available within 24-48 hours of when the photograph was taken) and the full archive of 600,000 photographs taken in the era of astronaut digital photography. The team investigates which photographs appeal to students and the public, and the creative ways that they share them through a variety of social media.
5. Research "citizen science" program to geo-reference images - In the Citizen Science component, students and the public geo-reference images, to identify the area covered by and features within each image. They use the ground-based software to do this, as it reconstructs the location of the ISS when each image was taken, and then enables participants to align the image as an overlay in the Google Earth based display. The team researches the accuracy of the alignments, the number of participants, the volume of images geo-referenced and the value of the results to support the scientists in their own research.

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Space Applications
Windows on Earth is integrated into the ongoing CEO experiment, in which crew members take snapshots of specific Earth targets. The experiment also solicits feedback from crew members about their photography tasks and how selecting and managing targets for photography equipment can be improved. On a broader scale, taking photographs of aurorae and other space weather phenomena can improve scientists’ understanding of these atmospheric interactions.

Earth Applications
An internet-based version of the ISS’s Windows on Earth software allows students and the public to experience virtual views of Earth that match what the astronauts see, and gain direct access to daily downloads and the full archive of Earth photographs taken by astronauts. Ongoing surveys measure whether people think the “WinEarth” software is effective at conveying how it feels to observe space through the ISS windows. The web site also enables the public to support Earth science research by geo-referencing the images, thus making them more valuable for the scientists and astronauts. Researchers will study the effectiveness of this program, as well as which photos are most appealing to students and the public.

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Operational Requirements and Protocols

The on-orbit software is installed on the ISS-Server1, and operates as an SSC-based client, using the IE8 browser and Windows XP operating system. It accesses orbital parameters through the Two-Line Element distributed on the Time Vector Attitude Server. It sets the current location based on the UTC time, as read from the SSC system clocks.
The system relies on daily data uplinks of targets and cloud cover, which are read into the ISS-Server1 data storage. The next version of the software also enables astronauts to select targets on-orbit, and downlink the resulting integrated and updated data files.
The actual photography by the astronauts is downloaded as a separate process, coordinated by the CEO program.

The program files are uplinked as part of the quarterly service pack. The astronauts launch the software and assure that it is operational, and correctly matches views out selected windows. Target lists and cloud cover files are then uplinked to test that targets are correctly integrated and displayed.
Astronauts use the software in either of two modes: 1) to identify the handful of daily targets, at specific times based on fly-over opportunities and crew timelines; 2) on a time available and at-will basis, when astronauts choose to do Earth observations (which they already do extensively) to identify targets available during those times.
During the first 3-month period, the software operates in parallel with the current CEO system of uplinking Word files with target descriptions and images – with Windows on Earth as a supportive tool. Future quarterly updates move towards full integration of the CEO program, Windows on Earth and the existing WorldMap software.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

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Results/More Information

Information Pending

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Related Websites
Association of Space Explorers
Windows on Earth

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image Mock-up of astronaut Jeff Williams using Windows on Earth software as a window-side aide for Earth photography. Image courtesy of TERC.
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image Software architecture, showing connections among the tools, data and visualization engine. Image courtesy of TERC.
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image User interface design, with (left to right) user controls, main window, ten-minute projection, two-orbit projection. Image courtesy of TERC.
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image NASA Image: ISS037E027344 - Astronaut Karen Nyberg is photographed working with the Windows on Earth laptop in the Cupola.
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