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University Looks To Create Crowdsourced Atlas Using Nighttime ISS Imagery

August 15, 2014
Image Caption: Constellations of lights connecting the densely populated cities along the Atlantic east coast of the United States are framed by two Russian spacecraft docked at the space station. Easy to recognize cities include New York City and Long Island at the right. From there, track toward the left for Philadelphia, Baltimore, and then Washington DC near picture center. Credit: NASA

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

NASA has compiled over a million pictures of Earth captured from the International Space Station, and now researchers are looking for your help in cataloging the nearly one-third of those images that were taken at night.

Those photos, which the US space agency calls the highest-resolution nighttime imagery available from orbit, are limited in their usefulness because it can be unclear exactly what they are depicting, explained NBC News reporter Alan Boyle.

To rectify the situation, Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) has established a crowdsourcing project to help catalog those ISS photographs. Researchers at the university have developed a website containing over 1,700 nocturnal images taken from locations all over the world since 2003, and have translated it into 13 languages so that a variety of citizen scientists can assist with the identification effort.

Boyle explained that the UCM initiative, known as Cities at Night, is divided into different divisions. One part of the project asks Web surfers to categorize images into pictures of cities, stars and other objects. Another requires geographical knowledge to match bright points of light to different locations on a map, while a third challenge asks citizen scientists to identify cities in wide-angle images captured at night.

“Anyone can help” with the first part of the project, which has been dubbed Dark Skies of ISS, explained UCM doctoral student Alejandro Sanchez. “In fact, 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.”

The second part of Cities at Night, called Night Cities, is based on the notion that a person residing in a particular city would have an easier time identifying its features than someone living halfway across the world, Sanchez said. This data will be used to generate light maps of cities.

The third part, called Lost at Night, is looking for people to review images encompassing an area of 310 miles, armed only with the knowledge of the space station’s location at the time when the picture was taken. “We don’t know which direction the astronaut pointed the camera,” Sanchez said, comparing it to “a puzzle with 300,000 pieces.”

To date, hundreds of volunteers have classified almost 20,000 images, NASA said. However, to ensure maximum accuracy, each one should be classified by multiple individuals. One of the project’s goals is to determine the optimum amount of people required to analyze each image, but the primary mission is to lead to the creation of an open atlas of night time images that can be used by scientists, reporters and the general public at any time.

“The project could open up new fields of research,” Boyle said. “Nighttime satellite readings already have been used to chart the rise and fall of political leaders – and there are few better illustrations of the economic disparity between North and South Korea than the space station’s picture of the peninsula’s dark patch. Pinpointing the locations in NASA’s nighttime pictures could help scientists track energy efficiency as well as the health and environmental effects of light pollution.”

Other potential applications for the atlas, which is a joint project of UCM, MediaLab-Prado, Spanish Light Pollution Research Network, European Cooperation in Science and Technology’s Action Loss of the Night Network, Crowdcrafting, Celfosc and AstroMadrid, could include “evaluating lighting for road and public safety and correlating light pollution with effects on human health and biodiversity,” added NASA.

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Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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