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Public can help create night map of Earth (UK and north-west Europe - photo credit Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center) 

Public can help create night map of Earth

Researchers are asking the public to help them create the first high-resolution photographic map of Earth at night.

Hundreds of thousands of images have been taken by the International Space Station (ISS), but sorting them is a massive task.

Three apps have been created to let the public help, but these urgently need to be improved – so scientists at the University of Exeter and Complutense University of Madrid have today launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise 12,000 euros (£10,500) to do this.

As well as creating a map for the public to explore, the Cities at Night project will help scientists studying the effects of night lighting on human health and wildlife.

“Astronauts take pictures of our planet from the ISS every day,” said Dr Alejandro Sánchez, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“The images cannot be catalogued automatically and almost half a million remain unseen, stored in a huge NASA database.

“That’s why we need citizen collaboration.”

More than 17,000 volunteers have helped catalogue ISS images since 2014, but the researchers now aim to turn the apps into games to encourage more people to get involved.

“We want to make these pictures useful for science,” Dr Sánchez said.

“At the moment they’re nearly impossible to use because they’re all mixed up in the archive.

“The image quality of the new map will be between 10 and 100 times better than the one currently available, where cities look blurred when you zoom in.

“It will also be in colour. If you look at night-time image maps of Earth now, they look like they are in colour but this is actually fake.

“All the light is yellow – whereas pictures from the ISS show real colour in fine detail, which will be a crucial source of information for scientists studying the effects of different lighting.”

Images catalogued by Cities at Night are already being used in research, including a recent study that linked blue light from sources including street lights to a significant increase in the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

Of the three apps created by the project, the first allows people to put ISS images into categories such as pictures of stars, astronauts and Earth.

Apps two and three – the focus of the crowdfunding campaign – let people match night-time images of Earth first with general areas and then with precise locations.

“The three apps were entirely made by volunteers, but we now hope to make them more professional and user-friendly,” said Lucía García, of Complutense University of Madrid.

“Improvements will include sharper design, making the apps work better on mobile devices and an ‘easy’ mode for beginners.

“It will become a game in which volunteer players will see nocturnal images of cities and will have to guess the location.

“By playing, they will help complete a new version of the world map.

“The result will not only be a beautiful map – it will give scientists unprecedented data on how the world is lit at night.”

Cities at Night belongs to the EU-funded project STARS4ALL, coordinated by the Technical University of Madrid.

Date: 22 May 2018