Earth System Science Center and Department of Atmospheric Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville

UAH students link ISS photos to classrooms around the world

Maggi Klug, right, a UAH student in Earth system science, shows Leah Parker, an Auburn student who begin the ESS M.S. program at UAH in January, how the Sally Ride EarthKAM registration system works and how photo requests are sent to a computer onboard the International Space Station. (Phil Gentry/UAH photo)

UAH graduate students Tyler Finley, center, and Maggi Klug, right, work through pre-mission planning in the Sally Ride EarthKAM Mission Operations Center at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center as Leah Parker, an Auburn student who joins the program in January, learns the ropes. (Phil Gentry/UAH photo)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Oct. 26, 2017) — A small team of students from the Atmospheric Science Department at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is getting ready for a mission to and from outer space next week.

Instead of riding a rocket into orbit, however, they are organizing and sending thousands of photo requests from teachers and school children around the world to a computer onboard the International Space Station, which will command a camera looking out an ISS window to take those pictures and download them to computers at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and UAH’s Cramer Research Hall.

The “mission” starting Tuesday will be the 59th for the Sally Ride EarthKAM program.

“There have been a lot of requests for areas in the Caribbean and the Bahamas,” said Maggie Klug, an undergraduate student in UAH’s Earth system science (ESS) program. Starting in January, as an M.S. student in ESS, she will be one of the EarthKAM program leads. “Whenever there is a large event — like this year’s hurricanes — we get a lot of requests related to that. It gives those students a bird’s eye perspective on current events.”

“Having the information in that image can be important,” said Rob Griffin, an assistant professor at UAH and the mission operations and science lead for EarthKAM. “Maybe they’re studying a volcano or tectonic plates or deforestation. What’s special is that now the students can request those images from the ISS and use them in their classrooms.”

A record-setting mission earlier this fall involved 35,000 middle school and high school students from 39 countries, including Brazil, India, Poland and Russia. That mission set a record for the number of classrooms signed up to participate. Typically, about half of the photo requests come from students in the U.S.

“We interface with students around the world,” said Tyler Finley, a UAH ESS graduate student and an EarthKAM program lead this fall.

EarthKAM’s Mission Operations Center is at the USSRC, although the UAH student team — usually two graduate students and up to four undergrads, all ESS majors — is set up in a lab in Cramer Hall during the weeks before and after a mission.

“We set them up here, where they do mission planning and post-mission image processing, creating some value-added products,” Griffin said. “They are getting some engineering and some practical experience, in addition to the science they’re getting in the classroom.”

While lesson plans and activities based on space science and the EarthKAM images are available on the program’s website, “we leave it to the teachers on how they use the pictures in their classrooms,” said Klug, who also works in NASA’s DEVELOP program, which is hosted by UAH. Lesson plans include activities in Earth and space sciences, geography, social studies, mathematics, communications and art.

EarthKAM has four to six missions each school year, with an additional mission during the summer. Teachers and students can request photos of a specific spot on the ground, based on where the ISS will be during each one-week mission, but there are some limits. On a typical day, for instance, between 50 and 70 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by clouds.

“Oh, yeah,” Klug said. “We get plenty of pictures of clouds.”

Because the ISS takes 21 days to complete a cycle of orbits and return to the same spot over the globe, if a requested point on the globe is cloud covered during a one-week mission there isn’t an opportunity to go back over that spot during that mission.

The program was created to encourage middle school and high school students to be more interested in science, technology and engineering, but Griffin says the UAH students also benefit from their participation.

“These students are getting experience in Earth sciences as well as mission operations,” Griffin said. “It creates a pipeline for students with experience in Earth sciences into ISS and related operations.”

That pipeline seems to be working: Two graduate students involved in EarthKAM operations this year accepted job offers from Teledyne Brown Engineering, a key ISS contractor.

Participation in the EarthKAM program is free for teachers, students, schools and scout groups.

Begun in 1995 by astronaut Sally Ride as KidSat, the EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) program flew on five space shuttle flights before moving to the ISS in 2001. The program was renamed for Sally Ride after her death in 2012. The program’s image gallery includes about 147,000 images, all in the public domain.

For more information, go to

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For more information:

Dr. Robert Griffin, (256) 961-7783

Phillip Gentry, (256) 961-7618

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