Incorporate an extraterrestrial element in your maps and apps

Over 60 years, NASA astronauts have captured more than four million photographs of Earth from the International Space Station. Join Wayne and Rylea as they explore applications of this unique, publicly available dataset with Laura Phoebus, an Earth Scientist and Geospatial Analyst contracted to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Plus, find out how astronaut photography helps track the health of our planet and provides a real-world, real-time view of disaster events.


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    Tapping into NASA's astronaut imagery

    Laura Phoebus: We have over 4 million photos of earth in our database. It's just so awesome to think of a human up there just snapping away photos of earth while we're down here.

    Disclaimer: This podcast is brought to you by the team at Esri Australia. To get your hands on, more short, sharp, and immediately usable resources, head to the Esri Australia website and search for goldmine.

    Wayne: Welcome to GIS Directions. I'm Wayne Lee-Archer.

    Rylea: I'm Rylea McGlusky.

    Wayne: And today we're going to continue on down the NASA rabbit hole and uncover some top tips tricks, and some tactics that'll add an extra dimension to your work as a GIS professional.

     To help us do that, we're joined by a very special guest from NASA someone who can ask an astronaut to take a selfie from the international space station as it orbits 300 or 400 kilometers above the earth.

    Rylea: Yes Wayne, we're lucky to be speaking with Laura Phoebus, an earth scientist and geospatial analyst from NASA's Johnson space center in Houston, Texas. Welcome to the show, Laura.

    Laura Phoebus: Thanks for having me.

    Wayne: And Laura welcome along. I'm sure most of us have seen some of the incredible astronaut photography that's been taken from the ISS, you know, images such as the Aurora, the Northern lights, Australian Bush fires. We've seen these particularly over the last couple of years, emerging into the public field.

    Laura, today, we'd love to have a quick chat with you and see if you can give us a little bit of an insight into ISS photography and a data. 101 lesson for taking photos from space.

    Laura Phoebus: Sure. Absolutely.

    Rylea: And I'd love to hear some of your tips about some practical uses in the GIS space. So looking at disaster response and climate analysis.

    Laura Phoebus: Yeah. Sounds great.

    Rylea: So I'd like to kick things off by jumping into something that I'm very curious about and something that I guess has a very, very cool answer. And that is, how all the ISS images captured. So is that someone actually up in the ISS taking the image and what are they using?

    Laura Phoebus: We actually have the crew on the ISS taking photos for us, they're using just a normal digital camera that you can get from any electronic store. And they are taking photos just out of the window of what they see of earth. And it's really, it's really cool to think about how there's a human up there in space, taking a photo of what they can see from.

    Yeah, like you said, about 350 kilometers up. So it's really cool. We have probably over 4 million photos of earth in our database, on our website. A lot of different things, so the astronauts can take pictures of whatever they see. Whenever they have time. They usually take photos of the Aurora's, cities at night.

    The nightlights are a really popular dataset. So cool and super useful. They also take photos of glaciers and lakes and deserts and deltas. And then also they take a lot of photos of natural events that they see. So hurricanes and a lot of flooding events, a lot of wildfires, they can see the smoke plumes from space. So we get a lot of imagery on that front.

    Rylea: And one of the coolest things that I saw on a StoryMap, you guys put out was looking at the columns of air within, I think it was a cyclone and or a hurricane or something like that. And because of the angle that the guys on the ISS can get, that you can't get with satellites, you can actually see the columns of air and how high up that cloud cover takes. It's very cool.

    Laura Phoebus: We just had a really rough hurricane season in the Gulf down here in Texas. And we got a lot of photos from the ISS, almost looking straight down into the hurricane, so right down into the eye and really cool, powerful photographs.

    Wayne: I imagine the ISS is obviously a bit different from other satellites that are up there. We've talked with Jeremy in the past about SAR or a synthetic aperture radar that happens on other sensors on other satellites. But the ISS is pretty special, uh, isn't it, Laura, it's a travelling pretty fast and it's not doing that nadir looking straight down view, is it, is there some challenges that you need to overcome with that kind of imagery?

    Laura Phoebus: Yeah. So unlike a typical satellite, the astronauts are taking photos at different angles, different altitudes, sometimes the ISS travels at a different altitude. The ISS actually travels over 90% of the human population. We don't get a lot of imagery of the poles because we're traveling just in a different orbit path than some of your typical satellite orbits.

    So we get a lot of imagery that has a lot of variety, and that's what makes our dataset unique because the astronauts are taking pictures just looking out the window. So, however they're holding the camera or whatever direction they're looking, the tilt and the look angle. It's not typically nadir, looking straight down.

    We get a lot of photographs that capture the horizon of earth to see aurora to see air glow just in the atmosphere. So a lot of really cool angles that lend to a very unique dataset that captures a lot of different varieties.

    Rylea: Does that mean a lot of your requests come from like MET agencies and those who want to be able to track like weather events and auroras and all that other good environmental stratosphere stuff?

    Laura Phoebus: Well, most of our requests for ISS photography come from scientific principal investigators who are looking for exactly what you said there. They're looking at the atmosphere. They're looking for changes in extents of glaciers. Right now, I think a lot of our sites are geared towards nighttime light studies because the astronauts can focus really, really well on nighttime imagery and that resolution is a lot higher sometimes than your black marble.

    Wayne: Do you guys post-process this imagery or is it just imagery available for the taking?

    Laura Phoebus: A lot of it is just imagery available for the taking, you know, as I said, we have a very, very extensive data set. So for us to geo-reference or geo rectify, all those photos, would you take a very long time?

    So we do a lot of post-processing with imagery for disaster response in particular, but also for just showcasing what our dataset can be used for, to the general public. So a lot of the StoryMaps that we have published right now, Just have some examples of how you can use our imagery. But most of the time we geo rectified those images for specific disaster events, but it's the exact same workflow that you would use for your aerial imagery from a drone.

    But sometimes it's a little more difficult with an astronaut photograph because it's really dependent on, the lens size that the astronaut is using, how zoomed in the photo is. It can really be difficult to locate those photos on earth, depending on how zoomed in they are, what the field of view is of the image.

    Wayne: Oh, I imagine sometimes you don't have those landmarks to sort of measure up against um, you don't always have a full, visible, uh, view on the entire globe. So it must be a bit, very difficult to tie those back to physical landmarks and geo rectify that.

    Laura Phoebus: Yeah, it can be really difficult sometimes particularly difficult for, if we have photos of fires in the Amazon, for example, it's super difficult to locate those on earth because, it's the rainforest and it's all really dense vegetation that doesn't have a lot of really distinguishable features to tie the photo to a base map.

    Wayne: Let's say for instance, there's a category five cyclone brewing off Eastern Australia. And our bureau of met are interested in getting a real bird's eye view on that.

    Can they submit a request to NASA, to you and how to use and go about relaying that request up to the ISS and then even getting back the imagery? Do they need to send it back on a return flight or have you got to know…

    Rylea: You got a Teams channel or something set up.

    Laura Phoebus: We compile a list of information about that particular site. That's geographic information, a little description about the particular study that somebody is requesting imagery for. The particular event, that's happening, that we need photographed. And we send that up in a daily message to the crew. We don't speak to them in person. We just, we just send up a message for them and it gets put on their schedule.

    It's not required for the astronauts to take pictures for us. They do this based on their schedule. But it's also dependent on the orbit path. You know, sometimes we get requests for disaster imagery in a part of the world that the ISS is traveling over at nighttime. So imagery isn't able to be captured for that particular event at that particular time, because it's just not possible because of the lighting.

    Sometimes the crew just has a lot of other scientific duties that they have to do up there. So they really just take photos for us when they can. So it's, it's a little sporadic, but that sometimes lends to, you know, really incredible photos, especially of some volcanic events that occur when the ISS is passing over it at just the right time.

    And the crew has the camera ready at just the right time. We can get some incredible photos of some of these events.

    Rylea: And how are those photos sort of delivered back down. Do you have like an STP or...

    Laura Phoebus: the photos are stored on the camera, the astronauts just take that SD card and downlink those photos to us. They just get sent down to us from the Space Station.

    Wayne: Wow it sounds like an incredibly "normal" for want of a better word, workflow. I mean, we do the same thing with our drones. We task our drones to go up and they take some photos and we get them back. And this sounds a very, such a similar thing. I think we're probably making Rylea jealous here. I know she always wanted to be an astronaut and I can see her spending her spare astronaut time up there taking some happy snaps and some selfies.

    Rylea: Uh, one of the negative things about growing up in Australia.

    Wayne: The next question really is, we spoke to Jeremy about the data that is available freely there at the national disasters center, are these images available freely to the public?

    Laura Phoebus: Yes, all these photos that we have and all the historical photos are all available on our "gateway to astronaut photography of Earth" website.

    You can download any photos you want. Our website is really cool because you can search for a particular location using a little search map, and you can search by a date that you want to look for, by percentage of cloud cover in the photo. And then you get all the photos that fall under that category that you can look through.

    Wayne: Is that for your entire back catalog? I know you said you've got 4 million photos going back as far as the 1960s, are all of those photographs available through that portal?

    Laura Phoebus: Yes, yeah, they're all there.

    Wayne: Amazing.

    Rylea: Wow.

    Laura Phoebus: It's really cool.

    Wayne: Well, I think with that in hand, our audience are probably well equipped to go and grab some of this imagery and see what wonderful things they could come up with on their own time and in their own space.

    And I would throw that challenge out to the audience to show us what you can make with astronaut photography.

    Laura Phoebus: Absolutely. It's all there. You just have to access our website and you can download photos in different resolutions. You can download the raw files in most cases of the photos. There's camera information, you can find out what time the photo was taken, where the ISS was when the photo was taken, and a lot of different information about the circumstances under which they took the photo. It's really cool.

    Wayne: Well, that's fantastic news and a great tip for our audience to know that they can get all that extra information and go about the process of putting astronaut photography on a map themselves.

    Thank you so much for your time, Laura. We're going to have to call it quits here. We could talk for hours about taking astronaut selfies!

    Laura Phoebus: Yeah. It's really, it's a really cool unique database of photos and it's just so awesome to think of a human up there just snapping away photos of earth while we're down here.

    Wayne: Excellent. Thanks for your time, Laura. And as you've heard today, audience, there are a lot of great NASA resources available for disaster response and climate analysis, and obviously some astronaut photography as well.

    Simply visit the GIS directions podcast, website, to view the astronaut’s photography story map, and all of the links that we've talked about here today.

    Rylea: And just before we go, just a little reminder to our loyal listeners out there, if you're enjoying the GIS directions podcast series, we would love it if you could give us a little bit of a review on whatever platform that you're listening to us on.

    Wayne: I love a bit of feedback, so don't be shy. Thanks again for joining us, Laura.

    Laura Phoebus: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me you guys.

    Wayne: And to the rest of the audience, happy mapping.

    Rylea: Bye everyone.

    Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and guests, and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Esri Australia.

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