The story of the ISS and EarthKAM
In this whole-class activity, students study and discuss some of Sally Ride's favorite images of Earth from space.
Cool Career—Sally Ride:
Students read about an astronaut and do two activities.
Science lab in the sky
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to visit the International Space Station (ISS)?
This huge science lab in space is home to crews of astronauts and cosmonauts. The project started in
1998 when 15 countries agreed to work together to build the ISS. U.S. and Russian rockets carried ISS
modules into space. Then space shuttle astronauts helped to put them together. The space station took
13 years and cost more than $150 billion to build.
The ISS orbits Earth at an average altitude just
over 400 kilometers (248 miles) and a speed of
28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour).
It completes an orbit every 90 minutes.
Including its solar arrays, the station is big enough
to cover a football field from end zone to end zone.
The ISS has room for a crew of six, plus visitors.
Aboard the ISS, astronauts conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many
other fields. Educational activities are a big part of the space station's mission. The EarthKAM camera
has been on the ISS since 2001. In addition, scientists use the space station to study how astronauts
are affected by living and working in space. People have been living on the space station every day
since the since the first crew arrived in 2000.
The lessons learned from the ISS will be important for future efforts to explore the Moon and to
land humans on Mars. One important lesson is that scientists and astronauts from different countries
can work together as a team. Russian and U.S. officials agree that many countries will have to cooperate
and contribute if we are going to send people to Mars.
Sally Ride shares the view from space
When Sally Ride became the first American woman to soar into space, she got a chance to look back at Earth
from the window of the space shuttle. She was amazed by the view of our beautiful blue planet wrapped in its
thin blanket of air. Sally realized how important it is for all of us to take care for our fragile home in space.
She wanted to share that view with young people all over the world. That gave Sally an idea—If NASA put a camera
in space, students could snap images of different places on Earth.
Sally started the program in 1995 and called it KidSat. The KidSat camera flew on three space shuttle flights.
In 1998, the program was renamed EarthKAM. The EarthKAM camera flew on two more shuttle flights before moving
over to the International Space Station in 2001. Sally died in 2012, and in 2013, NASA renamed the program Sally
Ride EarthKAM. Today the Sally Ride EarthKAM camera supports about four missions a year. During missions, middle
school students around the world direct the camera to capture images of specific locations on Earth.
How Sally Ride EarthKAM works
Sally Ride EarthKAM Flowchart:
See how information flows during an EarthKAM mission.
Student groups investigate the ground track of the International Space Station's orbit.
Understanding Maps of Earth:
Students read about different aspects of world maps, including latitude and longitude.
Go for the Gold:
Students play a game where they use latitude and longitude to find "treasure" hidden by an opponent.
Cool Career—Diane Evans:
Students read about a geologist and do two activities.
What is Sally Ride EarthKAM?
Sally Ride EarthKAM is a NASA program that lets students and
teachers around the world explore Earth from space. EarthKAM
stands for Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school
students. During three to five missions each year, students
submit requests to have a digital camera aboard the International
Space Station (ISS) capture images of specific places on Earth.
Who runs Sally Ride EarthKAM?
Sally Ride EarthKAM is a NASA program administered by Sally Ride Science. Sally Ride, the first American
woman in space, started the company to inspire girls and boys to become scientifically literate and to
explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Sally Ride EarthKAM Mission
Control Center is at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). UCSD students support all
Sally Ride EarthKAM missions.
How does a Sally Ride EarthKAM mission work?
A teacher starts by signing up for a mission on the Sally Ride EarthKAM website. Students use their class's Mission Account to pinpoint locations
and request images. To figure out where and when to request images, students can track the orbit of the ISS, refer to maps and atlases,
and check weather reports to see if clouds are likely to be in the way.
UCSD undergraduates at the Sally Ride EarthKAM Mission Control Center collect image requests from schools all over the world.
NASA representatives at Johnson Space Center in Houston uplink the requests to a computer on the ISS. This computer sends the requests
to the digital EarthKAM camera. Then, when the ISS is passing over the exact right spot on Earth, the camera snaps a picture.
The images are sent back to the ISS computer and downlinked to Johnson Space Center. From there they are transmitted to NASA's
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena for processing and then sent to the Sally Ride EarthKAM Mission Control Center. Within
hours, the Sally Ride EarthKAM team puts the images on the EarthKAM website. Students can investigate the images and make connections
to subjects they are studying.
When and where?
The ISS takes about 90 minutes to orbit Earth. It spends half of each orbit in daylight and half in night. EarthKAM images can only be
captured during the part of the orbit that is in daylight.
The ISS goes around and around our planet, retracing the same path in space. While the station is repeating its path, Earth rotates
underneath it. This means the ISS passes over a slightly different slice of our planet on each orbit. Because of Earth's rotation,
the ISS's ground track—the path on Earth's surface over which the station passes—moves a little to the west with each orbit. Students
can request images all along this changing ground track.
Interpreting EarthKAM images
Where in the World?
Students investigate an EarthKAM image to find its location, orientation, and scale.
Earth Images Bingo:
Students play a bingo game that lets them compare Earth images from different vantage points.
Cool Career—Carolyn Porco:
Students read about an imaging scientist and do two activities.
What a view!
Many of the astronauts who have looked down on Earth from
space have been surprised by the beauty of our planet. The images
captured with the Sally Ride EarthKAM camera let you share that
awesome view. Before you start investigating an image, take a
moment to appreciate a unique glimpse of our amazing planet.
Where in the world?
If the image is one you requested, you already know where it was captured. If not, you can figure out where an
image was taken. Each image has Image Properties information showing latitude and longitude. Look up the latitude
and longitude on a map to find out where the image was taken.
Which way is north?
The next step is to figure out which way is north in the image. In maps, north typically is at the top. When the International Space Station
(ISS) orbits Earth, though, it does not have a precise north-south or east-west orientation, so north is not necessarily at the
top of an image. Try to match features in the image to features on the map you are using. This will allow you to turn the image
until you find the correct orientation. Then you can compare your image to the map to identify features such as mountains, rivers,
bays, and cities.
The scale of EarthKAM images varies depending on the camera lens used and the altitude of the ISS orbit. The map you used to figure
out the orientation of your image has a scale. Pick two points on the map and use the scale to determine how far apart those points
are. Then measure the distance between those two points on the EarthKAM image. Use that information to figure out the scale of your
Looking for answers
Once you have identified the location, orientation, features, and scale of your image, investigate the image in greater detail.
Think about what information the image conveys. EarthKAM images may help you understand the processes of geological change.
They may reveal the effects of human activities. And they may let you see how Earth's oceans, land, and atmosphere interact.
Identify questions to investigate. If your image shows a river, you might find out where the river originates, what its
tributaries are, and what terrain it flows through. You can look for evidence of erosion caused by the river. Each image will
suggest different questions for you to investigate.