3 mins read 10 Dec 2021

Camera Lens Captures ISS Population Distributions

New research from the ISS Archaeology Project has used thousands of photographs taken aboard the ISS to find patterns in the space station’s population distributions. 

The International Space Station in orbit above Earth. Credit: NASA.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously inhabited for more than 20 years. During this time, the ISS has been visited by more than 245 individuals from 19 countries and 10 space agencies. Recently, the ISS has been the subject of an archaeological study run by the ISS Archaeological Project, which features Associate Professor Alice Gorman from Flinders University in Adelaide, and Associate Professor Justin Walsh from Chapman University in California.

So far, the study has explored what methods to use to study the ISS, including image analysis, interviews and questionnaires, development of procedures to be conducted by astronauts on the ISS, investigation of ISS cargo that has returned to Earth, and investigation of related Earth-based sites. However a new paper (currently in preprint) from this project has just been released which uses some of these methods to explore the population who have lived aboard the ISS. 

“We knew the NASA images would be a rich archive to study human behaviour in space. It turns out there are all sorts of unexpected ways to use the data they encode,” said Prof. Gorman. 

Studying the ISS Through a Camera Lens

Thousands of images have been taken of the inhabitants aboard the ISS. This particular photograph shows, from left, Flight Engineers Nick Hague, Andrew Morgan, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir aboard the space station. Credit: NASA.

This new paper from the ISS archaeology team is concerned with what seems a relatively simple question: who is using the different parts of the International Space Station? In particular, the researchers wanted to explore the population distributions throughout the ISS, including on the basis of gender, nationality, and space agency affiliation. To answer this question, the researchers utilised the image analysis component of their methodology. 

This study used photos stored by NASA, including photos from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The thousands of images used for this study were processed using AI-based machine learning in order to determine who was aboard the ISS and where according to gender, nationality, and space agency affiliation. 

The processing of these images has produced interesting findings which are outlined in this latest research paper. For instance, gender may play a role in how the ISS is photographed. The researchers found that women were photographed at an unusually high rate in the cupola (viewing room of the ISS) when compared with men. The researchers speculate that this may be a conscious or unconscious bias that bears thematic resemblance to representations of women in visual art at the turn of the nineteenth century. 

They also found that Japanese crew members appear to be photographed more than the other ISS inhabitants and that fewer than half of all the nations aboard the ISS were present in images taken in the cupola. It was also found that while the ISS is an international environment, the locations of the inhabitants are still distinctly tied to nationality when it comes to their use of space. 

“The results suggest that the designers of the new generation of commercial space stations might want to look into the environmental factors that affect how crew interact with each other. Our study demonstrates the benefits of social science approaches to space habitability,” said Prof. Walsh.