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NASA Interns Use ENVI and IDL for Research

Every summer since 2009, NASA has sent a group of senior undergraduate students up in a research aircraft to get hands-on experience conducting scientific campaigns. The eight-week Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) uses one of NASA’s flying science laboratories to sample atmospheric chemicals and image land and water surfaces in multiple spectral bands.

As a NASA partner, Harris Geospatial Solutions provides ENVI and IDL licenses to support SARP, further students’ academic careers, and make students more marketable for the workforce in the future. ENVI is used to process and analyze all types of geospatial data while IDL is used to extract meaningful visualizations from complex numerical data.

“The ENVI and IDL licenses have proven particularly useful since the intuitive interface is easy to learn and use during the fast-paced summer program,” said Henry Houskeeper, a SARP research mentor and graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. “Many of the students in the program benefited greatly from access to the software.”

Tyler Dawson, an astronomy and physics major at Northern Arizona University, used ENVI and IDL to map shifts in phytoplankton communities in the San Francisco Bay. “I was able to do all of my analysis without any previous experience using either program, which I think speaks volumes to their ease of use and value,” said Dawson.

During SARP, Claire Schmidt, a biology major at Knox College, studied the effects of California’s drought on riparian vegetation in the Santa Clara River basin in Ventura County. “I used ENVI to subset and mosaic airborne remote sensing data,” explained Schmidt. She also used ENVI to estimate fractional cover of green vegetation, non-photosynthetic vegetation and the soil within each pixel. “I found that increases in non-photosynthetic vegetation and decreases in green vegetation correlated with large drops in the water table.”

Both Schmidt and Dawson presented their research at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting held December 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.


  • Students analyze data in ENVI without prior coding experience
  • The ENVI interface is intuitive, making it easy to learn and use
  • ENVI analytics produce reliable, accurate results

The SARP 2017 student participants, graduate student mentors, faculty advisors and pilots posed for a photo in front of the NASA Armstrong Hangar on Thursday, June 22, 2017, in Palmdale, CA. Image Credit: NASA/Megan Schill.

Dawson’s project analyzed images from AVIRIS using ENVI.

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