Using Astronaut Photography as an Instructional Aid in Science Education

Feb 5, 2018 | Citizen Science, Image Detective

This is a guest post from Amy Jagge, Image Data Scientist, and part of our Johnson Space Center (JSC) Image Detective Science Team

Astronaut Photograph (ISS045-E-152000, 28mm, 11/30/2015) featuring earth limb and aurora borealis. Credit: NASA

Education facilitates the potential for opportunity, prompts curiosity, and nurtures ingenuity. Yet, the instructional strategies used by educators can significantly influence the degree to which learning impacts an individual. Innovative techniques for teaching science education are essential for enabling the comprehension of scientific topics.

Astronaut photography of Earth provides scientific data that educators can use as instructional tools to increase student engagement, facilitate a better understanding of Earth’s interacting systems, and offer visual examples of complex scientific concepts (Shabiralyani et al., 2015).

Below are four topics in science education that can benefit from using astronaut photography:

Cloud Dynamics

The International Space station orbits approximately 400km above the Earth’s surface providing a unique vantage point for astronauts capturing imagery of clouds. Astronaut photographs provide scientific data for visualizing cloud types, and educating students about their formation as it relates to atmospheric conditions in the lower and upper layers of the troposphere.

Astronaut Photograph (ISS043-E-154371, 19mm, 04/28/2015) showing various types of clouds over Denmark. Credit: NASA

Agricultural Patterns

Educators integrating astronaut photographs can provide global examples of how environmental factors that support subsistence agriculture or more recently, commercial agriculture have influenced human settlement, and how human engineering of those settlements influence spatial distributions of populations and resource depletion.

Left to Right: Astronaut Photograph (ISS013-E-53650, 400mm, 07/19/2006) and Astronaut Photograph (ISS047-E-121439, 800mm, 05/17/2016) showing a river’s flood plain bordering agricultural plots in Serbia. Credit: NASA

Urban development

Factors that influence urban development are geographic location, settlement patterns, and urban planning. These concepts can be easily visualized using night-time astronaut photographs providing an example of an urban environment’s physical and social structures.

Astronaut Photograph (ISS047-E-125306, 400mm, 05/19/2016) showing road structures in Mexico. Credit: NASA

Fluvial Erosion

Fluvial erosional processes are influenced by varying environmental factors such as the material being eroded, and the depth, gradient, and velocity of flowing water. Erosional processes modifying the Earth’s surface can be recognized and conceptualized using astronaut photographs, demonstrating the effects of fluvial erosion as it occurs in different geographic locations with varying environmental conditions.

Astronaut Photograph (ISS026-E-22812, 800mm, 01/29/2011) showing the effects of fluvial erosion caused by the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon, USA. Credit: NASA

NASA’s publicly accessible Astronaut Photography of Earth database made available through the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth website, curated by the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit at the Johnson Space Center houses over 2 million images taken by astronauts from space.

With CosmoQuest’s Image Detective 2.0 tool, Citizen Scientists around the world have the opportunity to enhance NASA’s Astronaut Photography of Earth database by identifying the center point location of astronaut photos. With center point locations, educators can quickly search and download the scientific data they need!

Go to CosmoQuest’s Image Detective 2.0 to identify the center point of astronaut photographs such as the images above, and advance scientific research by enhancing NASA’s Astronaut Photography of Earth database!


Shabiralyani, G et al. 2015. “Impact of Visual Aids in Enhancing the Learning Process Case Research: District Dera Ghazi Khan.” Journal of Education and Practice 6: 226. Accessed: 02/02/2018.


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