Become a NASA Image Detective

Featured GeekMom Science


The astronauts on the International Space Station spend a lot of their off-duty time looking back at planet Earth and lucky for us they take lots of pictures of it.

However, they don’t always have time to precisely catalog what each picture shows. That’s where citizen scientists can take part! NASA has a new program called Image Detectives, a web-based interface that lets people from all over the world match astronaut photos with Google Maps to get a precise location for what the image shows. Users can then tag the photos with labels for other features seen in each image. From the website:

Because a person in space took the images, people say the images give them a more personal feeling for the planet – quite apart from the amazing colors and shapes you have probably never seen before… The images give you a real idea of how big a dust storm can be, covering chunks of whole countries, or the extent of smog getting trapped in the valleys of Europe, China, or the United States, and that it can be so thick that an astronaut cannot see the ground. These images also give you an idea of how big a big city really is, or how long the Himalaya Mountains, the Alps, or the Rockies really are.

Images are much more useful if we know exactly which spot on the planet they show – to know which volcano is erupting, not simply that it is one of thousands of volcanoes on the planet. Everyone gets more use from a picture if they know the image center point and have a brief description, like “New York City”. Enter you, the center point detective! Scientists have used astronaut images for years, but the educational impact of astronaut images may be the most important thing about them. Watch your own geography skills change after you have located a few dozen images (ours sure did)! You will start to rack up points by correctly finding the center point and identifying the cloud cover percent and ground features.

This could be an excellent activity for middle grade or high school students who are really into space or geography.

I suspect that it will take some time to get fully proficient with the user interface, but integration with Google Maps means that most participants will have at least a basic familiarity. Still, the amount of panning, zooming, and rotating required would make it a tough sell for younger kids with shorter attention spans. But you don’t have to start from scratch: when you select an image a map will come up centered on the ISS coordinates at the time the photo was taken. So at least you’ll know if you’re looking at Africa or South America.

I love citizen science initiatives–they’re a great way to do something fun and educational while also feeling like you’re part of something a little bigger than yourself.

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