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Scientist seeks smartphone snappers to scrub satellite searches

Take a snap, get a free photo from space

Graphic depicting the Cluster satellite constellation in action. Credit: ESA

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) have come up with a novel idea for augmenting weather satellite coverage.

SSEC has its own weather satellite in orbit, the Suomi NPP, and works in conjunction with NASA to use data from the agency's Terra and Aqua satellites. But while the satellites are good at spotting cloud cover, they do occasionally have problems distinguishing between cloud and landscapes covered with snow and other bright surfaces.

SSEC satellite researcher Liam Gumley told The Register that the analysis software is designed to determine what terrain its cameras are travelling over, and decide if it is looking at clouds or the landscape. But, he said, with so many smartphones in existence there was an opportunity for citizen scientists to make a difference.

So the team developed the SatCam application for iOS users. People running the app will receive an alert when a satellite is overhead. They then take a picture straight up, with another picture of the horizon for positioning purposes, and the data is sent to the SSEC for analysis.

As an incentive to users, if they submit images the SSEC will send them the image that the satellite took as it was overhead.

"You're not going to be able to see yourself in them – our pixel size is 250 meters in diameter," Gumley said. "These are medium-resolution satellites, so catching individuals, cars, or boats isn't an option."

So far the application has brought in over 6,000 images from smartphone users, Gumley said, and the data has been very useful. He's now seeking funding to get an Android version of SatCam out to widen the pool of potential pictures. ®

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