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Students' photos are out of this world

Fredericksburg Academy students get to direct photography from the International Space Station
Date: May 1, 2010
By Laura L. Hutchison
Science students at Fredericksburg Academy spent last week taking pictures.

They weren't using their own cameras. They were sending instructions to a Kodak DCS 760 electronic still camera aboard the International Space Station.

Students send coordinates. The resulting photo shows the spot they chose, and everything within a 25-mile radius.

Rory Dunn was trying to get a photo of the Mount Arenal volcano in Costa Rica. He was among a group of FA's Global Explorers who spent spring break in the Central American country.

"We drove by it while we were there," Rory said. "I think it's really cool that we can basically choose any spot in the world that they orbit over and get a bird's-eye view. It's not something you normally see."

Science teacher Dara Dawson submitted an application to the EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) program, started by America's first woman in space, Sally Ride. So last week, students tracked the ISS orbit and sent coordinates via computer to tell the camera where to shoot up to 150 different photographs.

Jennifer Stanitski was searching over Madagascar. She found the process of choosing a spot interesting.

"Science is all about details," she said. "Normally taking a picture is simple. This way, you have to have the coordinates and the timing all right. A lot of things could go wrong."

And, in fact, one did. Early in the week, there was a problem aboard the ISS and the camera was 2 degrees off. So a photo Dawson requested of snow-capped mountains in the Andes wound up being of the ocean instead.

"It was pretty, but it wasn't what I wanted," she said.

The only restriction is that EarthKAM can't shoot in the darkness because it uses available light, and only half of each 90-minute orbit is on the Earth's sunlit side. So students were limited primarily to images of Earth's Southern Hemisphere last week.

"We really hoped we would have a flyover of the gulf so we could see the oil spill, but the ISS wasn't going to be over it during daylight," Dawson said of the spill from the offshore drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month.

Wyatt Henke got the shot he wanted--of the area around Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii.

"I wanted to see what an airport looked like from space," he explained. And that general area is where Pearl Harbor is, and I wanted to see what that looked like from above, as well."

Lauren Anker wanted a reminder of home.

"I chose Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, because I used to live there," she said. "It will be nice for me to see it again."

Dawson learned about EarthKAM after attending a workshop for science teachers at U.Va.

"It's about getting kids interested in what's happening in space," Dawson said.

According to the EarthKAM website, the program originated in 1995 as KidSat and flew space shuttle missions. Eventually renamed EarthKAM, it has been on the ISS since 2001 and supports approximately four missions annually.

For the students at FA, it was an unforgettable experience.

"Even something simple like taking a picture from above," said Nick D'Addio, "gives you a totally different perspective on the world."
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