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How will UrtheCast affect scientists tracking migration patterns?

When the switch is thrown next year on UrtheCast’s orbital high-definition video cameras, scientists stand to access valuable data from the near real-time images the devices deliver and archive. It’s data that could be synched with ongoing wildlife and climate tracking projects.

What might be in store for Earth-based researchers? Let’s turn to some researchers who considered several prospective uses in December.

Gil Bohrer, an assistant professor at Ohio State University, is a scientist interested in ways to link global positioning system information with satellite images. Right now, GPS and visual data from orbit help researchers such as Bohrer to track eagles, vultures and other birds. The images are typically still shots taken by satellite-carried equipment.

But what if the data included videos? And what if the footage was archived and searchable by location, type and theme?

“I can see some cool applications to the UrtheCast,” Bohrer said. “For example, animal trackers with high resolution GPS tracking could overlay the track on the UrtheCast image and map out, in extraordinary high resolution, where the animals they are tracking have been.”

Scientists and environmentalists will be able to use this information in several real-world applications.

“This could provide valuable information about the habitat needs and choices migrating and foraging animal make in selecting the exact path of movement,” Bohrer said.

And that’s not all.

Other scientists imagine that the approximate real-time capabilities of the UrtheCast HD video could benefit not only the search for information about animals and how they live and move across the surface of the planet, but also assist in the effort to identify human activity and how it might be impacting an ecosystem.

Mark Hebblewhite is an expert on forestry and conservation at the University of Montana. Thinking about the implications of UrtheCast in orbit, Hebblewhite suggested that the video feed from the cameras could help uncover evidence of unwanted behaviors.

“I could see it being quite interesting,” said Hebblewhite, particularly in relation to “things like tracking poaching and illegal logging.”

The real-time benefits might also help scientists in related fields, Hebblewhite said, such as those “who are using classic remote sensing to count seals hauled out on ice, distribution of cattle, and other population census kinds of questions.”

Whatever uses scientists come up with for UrtheCast, what’s clear is that orbital information is a burgeoning sector in the world of Earth studies.

As Space News reported in August 2011, the World Wildlife Fund is already using images of the planet taken from orbit to explore new ways of mapping conservation land, chart freshwater fish nurseries, and identify rare-animal presence at certain waterholes in sensitive regions.

NASA wants on board, too. As of 2011, the space agency hopes to complete a four-year funding of satellite imagery to capture information about climate-change impact on the planet’s flora and fauna.

Add HD video into the mix, according to experts like Bohrer and Hebblewhite, and the future opens a little wider for the outcome of these efforts.

James O’Brien is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle, and Boston University’s Research magazine. James blogs via

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