Spring thaw in the Northern Hemisphere was monitored by a new set ofeyes this year -- an Earth-orbiting NASA spacecraft carrying a newversion of software trained to recognize and distinguish snow, ice, andwater from space.
Using this software, the Space Technology 6 Autonomous SciencecraftExperiment autonomously tracked changes in the cryosphere, the sectionof Earth that is frozen, and relayed the information and images back toscientists.
The software, developed by engineers at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory, Pasadena, Calif., controls the Earth Observing-1spacecraft. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, managesthe satellite. The software has taken more than 1,500 images of frozenlakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Quebec, Tibet and the Italian Alps,along with sea ice in Arctic and Antarctic bays.
While other spacecraft only capture images when they receiveexplicit commands to do so, for the last year Earth Observing-1 hasbeen making its own decisions. Based on general guidelines fromscientists, the spacecraft automatically tracks events such as volcanoeruptions, floods and ice formation. The most recent software upgradeallows the spacecraft to accurately recognize cryosphere changes suchas ice melting.
Previously, scientists spent several months developing software forEarth Observing-1 to detect changes in snow, water and ice. The newsoftware is capable of learning by itself, and it took only a few hoursfor scientists to train it to recognize cryosphere changes. In fact,the new software has learned to classify the images so well thatscientists plan to use it for the remainder of the mission.
"This new software is capable of a rudimentary form of learning,much the way a child learns the names of new objects," said DominicMazzoni, the JPL computer scientist who developed the software."Instead of programming the software using a complicated series ofcommands and mathematical equations, scientists play the role of ateacher, repeatedly showing the computer different images and givingfeedback until it has correctly learned to tell them apart."
On Earth Observing-1, the software searches for specific cryosphericevents and reprograms the spacecraft to capture additional images ofthe event.
"The software has exceeded all of our expectations," said Dr. SteveChien, JPL principal investigator for the Autonomous SciencecraftExperiment. "We have demonstrated that a spacecraft can operateautonomously, and the software has taken literally hundreds of imageswithout ground intervention."
Similar software has been used to distinguish between differenttypes of clouds in images captured by JPL's Multi-angle ImagingSpectroRadiometer, an instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft.Automatically identifying types of clouds from space will helpscientists better understand Earth's global energy balance and predictfuture climate trends.
Future versions of the software also might be used to track duststorms on Mars, search for ice volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Europa, andmonitor activity on Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io. NASA's NewMillennium Program developed both the satellite and the software. Theprogram is responsible for testing new technologies in space.
For more information on the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment on the Internet, visit: http://ase.jpl.nasa.gov'.
For more information on the New Millennium Program on the Internet, visit: http://nmp.jpl.nasa.gov'.
For information about the Earth Observing-1 spacecraft on the Internet, visit: http://eo1.gsfc.nasa.gov.
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