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Geography department brings expert insight to NASA

Photo by: Antonio Reyes | Staff Photographer
The geography department at Texas State collaborates on some projects with NASA.

Faculty and students in Texas State’s geography department actively contribute work to NASA through a partnership with Jacobs Engineering.

Among different projects, students work to geolocate areas in images captured by astronauts from the International Space Station.

The geography department has been able to provide important insight to the center, said Nathan Currit, associate professor and director at the Texas Center for Geographic Information Science. Over the years, astronauts from the ISS have collected and archived photographs of Earth.

However, no one was keeping track of what areas they were photographing, he said.

“There are things that can be learned from these images, but only after we can find out where these images are from,” Currit said.

Science and remote sensing groups try to geolocate the areas in images collected by astronauts.

They catalog the pictures and identify geographic features to find the longitude and latitude.

Jacobs Engineering hired Joseph Aebersold, geographic information science senior, and Andi Hollier, geographic resource and environmental studies senior, to geolocate uncataloged imagery from their site.

Aebersold and Hollier catalog images from certain space station missions and report it to Jacobs employees, who then report to NASA.

The intent is to use them for scientific purposes, Currit said. Data from astronaut photographs are a source for analyzing environmental changes and potentially monitoring natural disasters as they unfold or the following recovery efforts.

Aebersold said the internship has been eye-opening and beneficial.

“It can be like a little puzzle, trying to figure out where you are on Earth, and then see cool photos like the space shuttle, the aura of the Earth and photos of the moon,” Aebersold said. “We are eager to show them what we can do as long as it falls in line of what they are looking for.”

Hollier said she and Aebersold locate center points on uncatalogued images and make it easier to identify features.

“We will put them into a database where you can inquiry them later,” Hollier said. “We do geo-referencing as well, which is putting a latitude and longitude on the pixels of the image so it’s a little more accurate on assigning coordinates to an image.

Hollier said the internship has been a fun experience and she just accepted a summer internship with NASA.

“You don’t really get to see (the astronaut’s) perspective every day,” Hollier said. “Usually there’s a humanistic perspective whenever you’re learning to research. With the astronaut photography and catalogue you get to go through and see the whole picture.”

Jacobs Engineering Group secured its $1.9 billion contract with the NASA Johnson Space Center in 2013. Through this contract, Jacobs Engineering executives wanted to collaborate with minority-serving institutions.

Texas State officials entered into a $5 million agreement in 2014 to collaborate with Jacobs Engineering executives for the next five years.

Faculty members are also contributing to research and projects. Currit is working on a project with Justin Wilkinson, a geomorphologist who focuses on landforms.

Wilkinson, a former Jacobs Engineering Group employee who became a faculty of practice at Texas State. He studies megafans which are major continental land features that help build the continents.

“Wilkinson identifies landforms, and I help identify upstream drainage areas that contribute sediment to the megafan,” Currit said.

Currit said the collaboration provides students and faculty with great opportunities and he believes the partnership with Jacobs will continue to grow.

“The real opportunity we have here is for faculty and students to find a friend in NASA, get an inside peek at how they work, an inside peek at the things they are doing and an inside peak at perhaps some of the externally funded opportunities to do research that you can find with a NASA friend to collaborate,” Currit said. “This is available for anyone on campus.”