New Website Lets Users See the Universe

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

The new Image and Video Library make it easier for people to find and download images from NASA's sizable collection of photos. Pictured is the Omega Nebula, an enormous cloud of gas and dust located 5,500 light years from earth.

The new Image and Video Library makes it easier to find images from NASA’s large collection. Pictured is the Omega Nebula, an enormous cloud of gas and dust located 5,500 light years from Earth.

Space tourism is in the news. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, recently announced the creation of Blue Origin, a company he says will take tourists into space by 2018. Virgin Galactic, under the leadership of Sir Richard Branson, is testing SpaceShip Two, a private spacecraft that, when full, can carry two pilots and six passengers. In Asia, two companies, PD Aerospace in Japan and Kuang-Chi Science in China, are also looking for ways to make space travel possible for ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, space tourism has a major drawback: cost. For example, the price tag for a 1.5 hour flight 70 miles into space with Virgin Galactic is a hefty $250,000 per passenger. That’s about $2,800 for each minute of flight.

Fans of astronomy and space travel have another option, however, and the price is free.

A Free Ticket to Space

In March, NASA launched its Image and Video Library. The library consolidates materials from more than 60 collections into 1 location. Searches will link users to images, videos, and audio files collected from decades of space missions. Although NASA warns that “the library is not comprehensive,” it will probably take most users a long time to check out the more than 140,000 items now available. Plus, NASA is uploading new files regularly.

All NASA photos include metadata. The metadata gives users information about each picture such as who took it, where, and when. All videos will have a caption file for people with hearing impairments. Web developers and bloggers are allowed to use NASA’s content in their own websites free of charge.

One Stop for Photos

The new library makes it easier to find NASA images, video, and audio online. However, NASA has offered these on the Internet for some time. In the 1990s, each of the 10 NASA field centers began converting their photo collections into digital formats and uploading them for users online. The problem was that each of the 10 field centers had different types of images. People interested in space flight would need to go to the Johnson Space Center’s site. If they wanted photos of rocket launches, they would need to go to the Kennedy Space Center site. Fans of astronomy who wanted to see images of planets, moons, and stars would have to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory site.

“It was, to be honest, pretty frustrating,” says Rodney Grubbs, NASA’s imagery program manager. “You had to have a lot of knowledge about NASA itself to know where a particular image might be.”

The NASA Image and Video library features photos from NASA's collection about the history of space travel and space exploration. In this photo from 2009, the Russian Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

The NASA Image and Video library features photos from NASA’s collection about the history of space travel and exploration. This 1962 photo shows Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.

Making It All Work

To create the Image and Video Library, NASA collaborated with Bethesda, Maryland, technology company InfoZen. To complete the project, InfoZen had to work with more than 200 existing NASA websites. Instead of moving all of the files to one central location at NASA, InfoZen moved the files to the Amazon Web Services cloud. “One aspect that enabled this project was that it was completely cloud-based and NASA did not need to make any hardware investment,” InfoZen chief executive Raj Ananthanpillai said.

The company also needed to make sure they deleted any duplicate photos that appeared on different field offices’ sites. However, the biggest challenge was to create a common metadata system for all of the files. “If you’re going to have meaningful search across multiple platforms, metadata is what you rely on,” Grubbs said.

What is Metadata?

Metadata provides information about images, videos, and audio files which makes it easier for people to search for them online. Unfortunately, NASA’s ten field centers each had its own system for creating metadata. In order to make the new search engine useful, all files needed to share the same metadata procedures.

This page from the NASA Image and Video Library contains information about this image of the planet Neptune including data about its size, format, and author. This information about the photo is called metadata.

A page from the NASA Image and Video Library contains information about an image of the planet Neptune, including data about the image’s size, format, and author. The information about this image is called metadata.

 Information About Information

Metadata is information about information. The word data is likely familiar to you. Data are facts about something that people use to make decisions. For example, if we feel sick, a nurse or doctor decides how to treat us by collecting data about our temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and weight. If you want to buy a video game, you will consider data such as how much money you have to spend and how much the game costs. The word data may be used either as singular (e.g. Data is available.) or plural (e.g. Data are collected.).

The prefix meta is less familiar. Meta comes from Ancient Greek, where it meant after or beyond. For example, the philosopher Aristotle’s book Metaphysics was so named because it was the book he wrote right after his book Physics. It was only later that people decided that the word metaphysics meant anything beyond the science of physics, such as discussions about the existence of a God or afterlife.

Putting meta and data together, you know that metadata is a special kind of data about data. Metadata is important in all aspects of life. In order to ensure that her company stays profitable, a businesswoman will need to track metadata about the products her company sells such as their cost, how many are currently in stock, how much they weigh, and from where she obtained each item.

When we go to the library, we use metadata to find a book we’re looking for. In order to help us find it, a librarian will note metadata such as a call number, whether a book is fiction or non-fiction, what subject area it is, or whether it is intended for adults or kids.

Information Privacy

Metadata was a major topic of conversation in 2013. Newspapers discovered that the National Security Agency was collecting metadata about phone calls citizens made. The National Security Agency was not actually recording or writing down the contents, or the actual data, of people’s phone calls. It was instead collecting metadata about the phone calls. Some of this metadata included the location, length, and time of a phone call.

Some people think collecting metadata about phone calls violates a person’s privacy. Others argue that since it does not record anything anyone actually said during a phone conversation, collecting metadata about phone calls is no cause for concern. The government’s collection of metadata remains a controversial topic today.

Additional Resources

Search the NASA Image and Video Library.

Read more about how the NASA Image and Video Library was created at NASA and Smithsonian.

Learn more about how people use metadata at the National Information Standards Organization.

Images and Sources

Omega Nebula Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Omega Nebula Photo License: Public domain

John Glenn Photo: NASA
John Glenn Photo License: Public domain

Neptune Photo: NASA
Neptune Photo License: Public domain