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Kids Control High-Flying Space Cameras

By Peter Spotts / March 26, 1996



Did your Mom or Dad ever give you a small camera to begin taking your own photos? Suppose you could put that camera in space to take pictures of Earth.

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That's what NASA has done, using one of its space shuttles for a bodacious science project called KidSat. It's proving that the shuttle Atlantis isn't just for grownups anymore.

KidSat is made up of three cameras that will take pictures of Earth from Atlantis during its current mission to meet Russia's space station Mir. The ''targets'' are picked and the cameras controlled by students sitting in the comfort of their own classrooms in San Diego, Pasadena, Calif., and Charleston, S.C. Once taken, the pictures are sent back and posted on the Internet's World Wide Web for anyone who wants to see them or use them.

Working with older students and with scientists at the University of California at San Diego and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, a team of elementary, middle-, and high school students figured out a way to mount a 35-mm still camera in one of the windows on the shuttle's ceiling. Instead of using film from the local drug store, the special camera records the images as a collection of 1's and 0's that a computer can store.

The team also designed a computer program that would help control the cameras, including a digital video camera in the shuttle's payload bay. The program was loaded onto a laptop computer that sits in the shuttle's cabin.

From beginning to end, kids have been the bosses on this project. Joshua Lane, a ninth-grader at La Canada High School in La Canada, Calif., helped develop the software and procedures for using the equipment while it is on the shuttle. He also helped train the astronauts who will oversee the equipment while in orbit.

Kids training astronauts?

''It was really a humbling experience,'' Joshua says.

''I was real surprised at how nice they were to us,'' adds Austin Leach, another high school freshman on the KidSat project. ''I thought they were gonna be a little different, like, 'Just tell us what you're gonna do an get outta here, 'cause you're just kids, you're not important.' But they didn't treat us like that. They treated us like we were important, and they really listened to us.''

At the moment, only three schools are involved. But as KidSat flies on future shuttle missions, more and more schools will be able to take part and get their photos back faster than Fotomat!

It is no surprise that the adults involved see this effort as a way to encourage kids to tackle tough projects and spark their interest in a range of subjects, from science and the environment to history and geography.

They are also finding ways for classes to use the photos kids take from space. For example, if you're studying rain forests, the shuttle could take a photo of Brazil from space. Over time, you could see how deforestation affects the land by comparing it with other photos taken of the same spot.

In the end, some of the adults hope to see KidSat become a permanent part of the international space station, which will be built in space beginning late next year. As time goes on, it may be possible to add different kinds of sensors to the cameras already in use.

Images from radar on the space shuttle, for example, have found the remains of ancient cities buried beneath desert sands. Who knows? Some day a request for a KidSat image may lead to, say, the discovery of a long-lost tomb.

1. Students at one of three schools select a ''target'' to photograph. They send their request to KidSat's mission operations center at the University of California at San Diego.

2. Students at UCSD, the ''gatekeepers'' for the requests, relay it to the mission controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

3. Mission controllers relay the request to the shuttle via two satellites and a ground station in New Mexico.

4. Astronauts use digital cameras and a laptop computer to take the pictures. They send them back to Houston via the satellites and ground station.

5. Houston relays them to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for storage and posting on the Internet's Worldwide Web.

Visit the KidSat home page on the Internet:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/kidsat