Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

Help tackle light pollution by identifying photos of cities taken from the ISS

The Iberian Peninsula at night, showing Spain and Portugal. Madrid is the bright spot just above the center. NASA

Light pollution is an environmental issue that you might not think much about, but it can have serious consequences. From interfering with astronomical research to impacting both wildlife and human well-being, too much artificial light at night can cause a range of problems. To understand the scale of the problem, the European Space Agency (ESA) is promoting a program to catalog images of cities taken from space and is asking for the public’s help.

The Lost at Night project aims to quantify and map artificial light pollution caused by humans, especially around major cities. It uses high definition photographs of the Earth taken from the International Space Station (ISS). “The International Space Station is the best observation point humankind has for monitoring Earth at night,” Kevin Gaston, project leader of Lost at Night, explained to the ESA.

There are more than a million photos of the Earth taken from the ISS in the NASA Astronaut Photography of Earth archive, providing a potential treasure trove of data about light pollution.

However, there’s a problem. The majority of the photos in the archive are uncataloged, so they have no location information. Without labeling describing which location an image shows, it can’t be used for data analysis.

The Lost at Night project invites regular people to contribute to science by helping to catalog these images. Citizen scientists can look through the images and identify which cities they show, and they can perform this task better than machines can. “While computer algorithms have trouble distinguishing between stars, the moon, and cities, people are more reliable when it comes to recognizing patterns and analyzing complex images,” Alejandro Sánchez de Miguel, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, UK and the lead investigator of the project, said in to the ESA.

The website shows a number of options for which city could be shown in each image and shows maps as well as the night-time image. The system requires five people to agree on which city is shown to accept that labeling, in order to decrease errors. Then the images can automatically be cataloged by an A.I. and are available for researchers to analyze.

The project aims to identify a total of 90,000 images, which would be enough to train an A.I. to recognize cities itself. To contribute to the project and try your hand at identifying cities, head to the Lost at Night website.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Astronaut’s video offers rare fish-eye view from the ISS
Earth from the space station, viewed through a fish-eye lens.

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has shared a rarely seen view from the orbiting outpost that shows our planet from horizon to horizon.

The video, captured by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, was made possible by recording Earth through a fish-eye lens. Covering a distance of about 4,300 miles, the video (below) starts just south of Ireland before passing over France, the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily, the Nile, and the Red Sea before reaching the Horn of Africa.

Read more
6 awesome Earth images captured from the ISS in July
The Nile River as seen from the space station.

The International Space Station has been orbiting 260 miles above Earth for the last two decades.

While its primary function is as a space-based laboratory for performing science experiments in microgravity conditions, the orbital outpost also allows astronauts to conduct Earth observation studies as well as the chance to capture gorgeous images of our amazing planet.

Read more
See how this ISS astronaut recreated a moment from Gravity movie
ISS astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti recreates a moment from the hit movie Gravity.

International Space Station inhabitant Samantha Cristoforetti is clearly having a blast aboard the orbiting outpost, taking a moment out of her busy schedule to recreate a moment from the 2013 space movie Gravity.

An image (below) shared by Cristoforetti shows the European Space Agency astronaut striking a pose that perfectly replicates a moment in the hit movie where Dr. Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, makes her way through the station. Cristoforetti even set it up so that the scene from the movie showed on a screen just above her.

Read more