US government agencies have sponsored air and space research for more than a century. Since the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established in 1915, it and its successor, NASA, have racked up thousands of images of their discoveries.
Many of these have become iconic. The “Blue Marble” photo, taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, is credited with helping launch the environmental movement and may rank among the most-reproduced images in history.
But the bureaucratic nature of America’s space program hasn’t always made finding these images easy. Until recently, they were scattered across more than 60 collections.
But on Tuesday, NASA unveiled its new Image and Video Library, bringing together more than 140,000 photos, videos, and audio clips “from across the agency’s many missions in aeronautics, astrophysics, Earth science, human spaceflight, and more,” the agency said in a press release.
“The library is not comprehensive,” it notes, “but rather provides the best of what NASA makes publicly available from a single point of presence on the web.”
The Blue Marble is there, along with other familiar images like the “Pale Blue Dot” (Earth as seen from the Voyager probe) and the “Pillars of Creation” (the Eagle Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope).
There are also more offbeat moments in the agency’s history, such as a 2009 Disney World parade featuring a Buzz Lightyear action figure that had spent time aboard the International Space Station, and somber ones, such as the investigation into the 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
All are in the public domain and available for re-use. NASA invites users to “embed content in their own sites and choose from multiple resolutions to download.” It also provides captions and metadata for each photo, and offers a mobile version of the library for phones and tablets.
It’s not just science educators and outer-space wallpaper fans who stand to benefit from the availability of these new photos. They could also spur new questions and discoveries by ordinary citizens. Using publicly available information, “citizen scientists” have already identified a faulty sensor on the International Space Station and lent a hand in the search for Planet 9.
It’s too early to tell what discoveries await in NASA’s new library, or if would-be investigators would need to supplement its information with other kinds of information. But it’s likely to help advance a trend recently noted by Andrew Maynard, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, for The Conversation.
“Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress.”