Like photo-hungry tourists, the astronauts and cosmonauts who spent time on the Russian space station Mir took along cameras and lots of film to record their observations. Their photographs are providing important new insights into how nature and humans are changing planet Earth.
Some of these photographs will be published this month as part of a new book of the results of imagery analysis in such areas as urban growth, El Niño impacts, and changes in sea levels, coastal vegetation and land use. A collaborative effort between NASA and Russian Aviation and Space Agency Earth observation experts, Dynamic Earth Environments: New Observations from Shuttle-Mir Missions will include 16 pages of color photographs taken by astronauts and cosmonauts on Mir between March 1996 and June 1998.
“One advantage of the long-duration program on Mir is that crews could observe and record a continuum of changes on the Earth, including changes from season to season,” said Kamlesh Lulla, Ph.D., chief of the Office of Earth Sciences at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
By observing and documenting surface dynamics and processes over time, scientists can gain a better understanding of the forces – both natural and human-induced – that change the Earth. Some of the 22,000 photographs taken by the Mir astronauts capture natural phenomena for the first time, such as lakes in the Andes Mountains drying up.
“Our primary goal was to use photographs taken from space to document environmental changes and dynamic Earth processes such as flooding, droughts and urban growth around the world,” Lulla added. Other areas of interest included events related to short-lived phenomena such as tropical storms, large fires and volcanic eruptions that otherwise might have gone undocumented.
A second major objective was to use the experience gained during actual space flight to develop approaches and tools for the next generation of Earth observations from the International Space Station (ISS). “The Shuttle-Mir missions served us well in preparing the NASA Earth sciences program for long-duration scientific investigations from the ISS,” Lulla said.
He cited a variety of benefits from the operational experience provided by the Mir flights, including the development and testing of interactive electronic training and reference software, an interactive map, and evaluation of the long-term impact of on-orbit film reloading, data recording and camera maintenance. “Most importantly,” Lulla added, “we learned to plan and communicate effectively from remote centers with an international crew.”
Astronauts Shannon Lucid, John Blaha, Jerry Linenger, Michael Foale, David Wolf and Andrew Thomas, and their Russian crewmates, used hand-held 35 mm and 70 mm cameras equipped with a variety of lenses. They were able to record long-term and seasonal changes in agricultural and other land-use patterns, changes in atmospheric conditions, and ecological changes such as global deforestation.
“A key factor in the success of the Mir Earth observations research was crew initiative,” Lulla said. “Some of the best and most interesting phenomena cannot be anticipated, but they can be documented by well-trained astronaut observers.”
Before each flight, scientists from various Earth science disciplines trained the crewmembers in recognition of Earth features and processes. Russian and American scientists then created a list of desired sites and requested photography of the sites when conditions permitted. “A relatively new focus of investigation was on the production of aerosols such as dust, smog and smoke around the world,” Lulla said. Such data are becoming increasingly important in climate-change modeling, material transport and land-use change. Other targets of interest were sites with short-term natural dynamics, such as plankton blooms in oceans, as well as active and rapidly changing volcanic regions.
The focus and extent of photography varied from crew to crew, Lulla said. For example, Lucid and her Russian crewmates documented the transition from winter to spring to summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Foale and his colleagues on Mir recorded key atmospheric changes related to the developing 1997 El Niño event, which formed an important baseline for tracking the impact of El Niño during subsequent flights. Thomas completed documentation of El Niño during the final U.S. flight on Mir.
Lulla said the book is aimed at a very broad audience, not just researchers in the Earth science disciplines. “The photographs contain valuable and easily understood information about regional occurrences and duration of hard-to-measure events,” Lulla said. “Students of the Earth of all levels should find this book of value.” The book should be available at large booksellers and libraries, as well as through academic bookstores.
Astronaut photographs of Earth certainly are not unusual. NASA’s collection, which dates from the early days of the American space program nearly 40 years ago, numbers some 400,000 images. The images taken during the Shuttle-Mir program have been added to the larger database of photographs taken by astronauts and cosmonauts during flights around the Earth and to the Moon.
“This imagery provides us with a global perspective on the rhythms and spatial scale of important natural and human-induced events taking place on the Earth’s surface,” Lulla said. “If the experiences of the Shuttle-Mir crews are typical, Earth observations by crewmembers on the International Space Station will greatly improve both our database and our understanding of processes and changes on the Earth,” he added.
In keeping with the international nature of the book, astronaut Frank Culbertson and cosmonaut Valery Ryumin – managers of the Shuttle-Mir program -- provided the foreword. The volume also has both an American and a Russian editor. Editing duties were shared by Lulla and by Lev Desinov, Ph.D., of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Associate editors were Cindy Evans, Julie Robinson and Pat Dickerson, senior scientists in JSC's Office of Earth Sciences.
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