New crowdsourcing project calls on citizen scientists to catalog images of cities at night

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A stunning picture of Naples as taken from the ISS (Image: ESA/NASA)

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A new crowdsourcing initiative is calling upon the public to help catalog the ever increasing library of images snapped of our planet, and more importantly its cities, at night from the International Space Station (ISS). With your help, the Cities at Night project could help map light pollution spanning the course of the 16 year period in which the images where taken, with the added bonus of giving volunteers the opportunity to flick through a catalog of stunning images that highlight the mark we make on our planet at night.

As you can imagine, there is no lack of things for an astronaut to do aboard the ISS, with almost every hour of their waking life meticulously scheduled by mission controllers on the ground. However, as anyone who has ever followed an astronaut on social media during their tenure aboard the station will know, taking pictures of the Earth at night is one of their favorite past-times. There is estimated to be close to 500,000 such images now in existence, and the task of cataloging them has become a significant one, requiring a joint venture between a number of bodies including NASA, JAXA, ESA and Russia's ROSCOSMOS space agency.

The problem comes when the images are either not cataloged initially, or the astronauts set their cameras to automatically capture the images as they go about their daily routine aboard the station. Unfortunately, there is no computer program with the ability to automatically identify the cities, and so the task has to be tackled with good old-fashioned human graft. Cities at Night asks volunteers to locate cities on a world map, tag them, and give the city an exact geographical reference. Each of these tasks can be completed via a bespoke web application that runs from a browser.

While light pollution may seem like a small issue to some, according to ESA the illumination of cities from street lighting in the territories of the European Union alone costs €6.8 billion (nearly US$8.5 billion) per year, and has the detrimental side effects of upsetting the natural habits of local wildlife, and can even be detrimental to our health. By helping to map the extent and increase of light pollution, we could inform future policies on night time illumination, possibly leading to the implementation of cost saving measures, and hopefully one day, reducing our impact on the night sky.

Source: ESA

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