Eye in the Sky

Kids command a camera on the space shuttle

If you could look down from space at a spot on Earth, which spot would you choose? If you're a middle-school student, this isn't a silly question. Students in classrooms around the world can take pictures of the earth from a special camera aboard an orbiting space shuttle.

EarthKAM is sponsored by the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA). It also receives support through the University of California at San Diego and TERC, a nonprofit educational-research company in Cambridge, Mass. At least once a year since 1997, special cameras have been attached to a space shuttle to take pictures of the earth as directed by students on the ground. The students log on to a special Web site that lets them enter commands that are relayed to the camera. Photos are sent over the Internet.

The most recent EarthKAM mission flew in February. More than 10,000 students in 85 schools ordered nearly 3,000 images. Schools across the United States participated, as well as some in France, Germany, and Japan. One school that took part was Spring Harbor Environmental Magnet Middle School in Madison, Wis.

Beginning in November 1999, seventh- and eighth-graders at Spring Harbor were divided into teams of two. Each team was assigned to come up with a question that could be answered by taking a photo of Earth from an orbiting space shuttle.

Their questions covered a wide range of topics. They decided to look at the destruction of rain forests in Brazil, changes in the structure of the Grand Canyon, Persian Gulf War destruction in Kuwait, the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, and the watersheds of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Mideast, among other things. Patterns of human settlement, as well as weather and farming patterns, are popular subjects for the project.

Quick thinking required

Students had to find the latitude and longitude of the locations they chose, down to 1/100th of a degree. They also had to determine the exact second when the shuttle would be in position for the image they wanted. Students used Web sites to determine weather conditions over their sites.

When the shuttle went into orbit, the students at Spring Harbor went to work in their own "mission control," which involved about 20 student technicians.

Jon, a seventh-grader, served as a mission coordinator. (Students published their results using their first names only.)

"We took 74 photos over two weeks," Jon reported. "We had to track weather conditions and the status of the camera." They also had to revise their calculations whenever the shuttle changed its orbit or clouds covered a proposed photo site. Technical difficulties with the camera also required some quick revisions.

Once they received the photos, they had more work to do. With help from powerful computers at the University of Wisconsin, they enhanced (brought out details) and interpreted the photos.

"We got a few surprises," said Heidi, a seventh-grade technician. She was able to get three photos during the mission. One was a study of fertile soils along the Nile River in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. She got a real bonus when the photo also showed several ancient pyramids!

A special award from NASA

For Jon, the best part was controlling the camera and being able to take photos from space. But seeing the resulting images also brought special rewards. One of his photos, of the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain, showed ski runs at a mountain resort. It was selected by NASA as one of the 30 best student photos from the mission.

Students examined photos and displayed their results in computer presentations. Some were posted on Web sites.

NASA is creating a database of student photos on the Web and guidelines for teachers so that classes not in the project can study the photos. (Spring Harbor's site is: www.madison.k12.wi.us/stugeon/sts99.html) Some students shared their findings in other ways. Jon and Heidi gave a presentation to the district school board. Other students presented their rain-forest-study results at local elementary schools.

Students involved in the project receive practical lessons in a wide variety of subjects. They see geography in a new light. They learn how to locate areas by latitude and longitude and to make precise calculations. They research geology, weather, history, the environment, technology, space science, and anthropology.

"We also learned patience," says Jon, who sometimes had to scramble when clouds, camera problems, or orbital changes required new calculations. But he says he would be happy to do it all again.

And he may get the chance. According to Karen Flammer, project adviser at the University of California at San Diego, the project will continue indefinitely when a camera is placed on the International Space Station sometime in 2001.

Any school is welcome to join the project. Go to: www.earthkam.ucsd.edu

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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