March 26, 2014

When the Soviets launched Sputnik1 into orbit in 1957, Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, or NASA. The new agency held the promise of a new frontier, and it captivated a nation born of exploration and innovation. More than 40 years after man landed on the moon the fascination with NASA continues, but the agency’s greatest legacy might be what it can teach us about life here on Earth.

One of NASA’s many earthly pursuits is finding ways to curb carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. When researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. needed help measuring carbon sequestration levels using California’s tree cover, they approached LSU computer science professor Dr. Supratik Mukhopadhyay.

Mukhopadhyay, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at LSU’s College of Engineering, specializes in machine learning, or training computers to recognize patterns and infer future behavior based on their findings.

“If you give me examples of how much carbon has been sequestered given a particular tree cover,” explained Mukhopadhyay, “we can train the computer to recognize that tree cover’s distinct features and estimate carbon sequestration levels based on its density.”

Not all tree canopies are alike, however. One of the challenges for Mukhopadhyay was training the computers to recognize variations in the California fauna and code different types of tree cover. Over the course of several months, he wrote the necessary machine learning algorithms to map the entire state of California using NASA satellite images and generate estimates for the different types of tree cover.

Some of these images measured 7 kilometers by 7 kilometers, and analyzing them required extraordinary computational power. Mukhopadhyay had access to the Ames Research Center’s Pleiades supercomputer, which can process 3,000 terabytes of data. Saikat Basu, a doctoral student at LSU’s College of Engineering and Mukhopadhyay’s graduate assistant, will travel to the Ames Research Center in the fall to begin mapping the rest of the U.S. using Pleiades.

“I can use the same algorithms to map the rest of the country,” said Basu, “but I will have to train the computer to recognize different tree canopies as I go.”

Basu is funded through a two-year grant NASA awarded Mukhopadhyay to conduct the tree canopy mapping project. While in California, Basu will collaborate with NASA scientists Dr. Rama Nemani, who works to develop ecological forecasts using satellite data, and Dr. Sangram Granguly, an expert in remote sensing.

The benefits of Mukhopadhyay’s and Basu’s work will extend beyond enhanced measurement of carbon sequestration. The data from their projects will also be available to scientists across a wide range of disciplines and industries, such as agriculture, coastal studies and energy.

“Tree cover is useful in calculating NDVI, or Normalized Difference Vegetation Index,” said Mukhopadhyay, “which helps farmers predict crop growth. We are also starting to apply these technologies to measure land erosion along the Louisiana coast.”

Basu and his colleagues at NASA will map rooftops across the country in addition to the tree canopy. Energy companies and other private firms will be able to use these data in their quest for alternative energy sources.

Mukhopadhyay is hopeful that his and Basu’s successful collaboration with NASA will encourage more students to pursue advanced computer science degrees at LSU.

“Some students who want to do graduate work in computer science feel that they have to go out of state to do interesting research,” said Mukhopadhyay. “My message to them is that they don’t have to go to the Northeast or the West Coast. They can do exciting work right here.”


Article by Liz Lebrón, LSU College of Engineering communications graduate assistant. For more information, contact Mimi LaValle,, 225-578-5706.

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