Crew Earth Observations (CEO) - 01.14.15
In Crew Earth Observations (CEO), crewmembers on the International Space Station (ISS) photograph the Earth from their unique point of view located 200 miles above the surface. Photographs record how the planet is changing over time, from human-caused changes like urban growth and reservoir construction, to natural dynamic events such as hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions. A major emphasis of CEO is to monitor disaster response events in support of the International Disaster Charter (IDC). CEO imagery provides researchers on Earth with key data to understand the planet from the perspective of the ISS. Crewmembers have been photographing Earth from space since the early Mercury missions beginning in 1961. The continuous images taken from the ISS ensure this record remains unbroken.
Science Results for Everyone
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to science, images of Earth captured by ISS crew members through the Crew Earth Observation (CEO) program may be priceless. Available online (http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov), these images have appeared in scientific papers on a variety of subjects, including Tahiti’s giant clams, urban vegetation, coral reefs, algal blooms, night-time remote sensing, and the break-up of Antarctic ice shelves. Scientists have also used CEO images for a global inventory of a new class of landform, megafans of river sediments in continental basins. Analysis of megafans may contribute to mineral exploration and has suggested the existence of past river systems on Mars. Experiment Details
Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD)
ISS Expedition Duration
November 2000 - September 2015
Previous ISS Missions
Crew Earth Observations have been ongoing since 1961 and more than 350,000 images have been taken during ISS operations. ^ back to top
- The photographs from Crew Earth Observations (CEO) document human impacts on Earth, such as city growth, agricultural expansion, and reservoir construction and other natural phenomenon like volcanoes and hurricanes.
- Through their photography of the Earth, International Space Station (ISS) crewmembers build on the time series of imagery started with the first human spaceflights, ensuring that this continuous record of Earth remains unbroken.
- Photographs taken from ISS accounts for almost one half of all Earth photographs from human space flight.
- During Increments 19 through 26, a new activity is conducted in collaboration with the celebration of Darwin's 200th Birthday (February 12, 1809) Celebrations and the Voyage of the HMS Beagle activities. This project was initiated by an agreement between NASA and the HMS Beagle Trust (also known as The Beagle Project) as an international collaboration of scientists for the observation and exploration of the sites visited during the HMS Beagle's Voyages. The ISS crewmembers photograph sites and phenomena including land use and plankton blooms, in response to requests made from the scientists on the ground.
The International Space Station crewmembers use commercial and professional handheld cameras with a suite of lenses (from wide angle to an 800mm lens equivalent) to take Earth observation photographs that support research in a wide variety of Earth Science sub-disciplines. Scientists on the ground train the crew in basic areas of Earth system science and provide the crew a daily list of targets of the greatest scientific interest. Crewmembers take these photographs as time is available and during their leisure time. These digital photographs are downlinked, their location identified and both images and meta-data are assimilated into a public database. The images are used as educational and research tools, as well as historical records of global environmental change, special geological and weather events, and the growth and change of human-made features, such as cities. Crew Earth Observations (CEO) are conducted from any available window on space station, but are conducted primarily from the windows in the Russian Zvezda service module and the nadir-viewing, optical-quality window in the U.S. Destiny laboratory module.
The imagery captured by crewmembers during long-duration missions provide insight for planetary surveys within our solar system and anomalies that occur in low Earth orbit, as well as documenting other cosmic events such as planet transits across the Sun. In addition, photographing the Earth has been shown to improve crewmembers' mental wellbeing during long-duration missions on the ISS. Crewmembers enjoy taking Earth photos and spend much of their free time shooting from the ISS windows or cupola.
Using off-the-shelf cameras with powerful lenses, crewmembers take pictures of Earth, documenting locations specially requested by scientists on the ground. A global view of Earth from space can place human-caused or naturally caused events in greater context, and record the ways in which these events impact the planet. The long history of crewmember photography also provides a unique record of how surface features have changed over time. High-resolution images of cities and natural features such as coral reefs, river deltas and icebergs can help scientists understand urban growth, and impacts of agricultural, and global ocean and weather events. Continuous ISS flybys enable various viewing and lighting angles for the same locations.
Crewmembers spend approximately ten minutes a day, five days a week, recording their Earth observations. Some crewmembers have found Earth observations very enjoyable, and have dedicated extra time to photographing the beautiful and extraordinary views from the windows of ISS.
A list of regions to be photographed is uplinked to the ISS daily, except during docked operations; crewmembers also select regions to photograph. Currently, all CEO images are captured with an electronic still camera and downlinked daily. All imagery is cataloged and stored by the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center and are accessible via the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.
ISS provides a unique opportunity to capture a variety of sites on Earth by providing repeated overflight passes of the Earth with different lighting and viewing angles. Through CEO, ISS crewmembers share their view of the Earth with the public and take pictures of some of the most dramatic examples of change on the Earth's surface. These sites have included major deltas in south and east Asia, coral reefs, cities, alpine glaciers, volcanoes, large megafans (major fan-shaped river deposits), and features on Earth, such as impact craters, that are analogs to structures on other planets. Astronauts also record dynamic events: in 2004 and 2005, station astronauts took key photographs of the four Florida hurricanes, the December 2004 tsunami, and Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Other notable images capture volcanic eruptions on Mt. Etna (Sicily) and Cleveland volcano (Alaska), dust storms, smog, forest fires in the western U.S., and the Kolka glacier collapse in Russia.
From Expedition 1 through December 2007, ISS crewmembers took more than 300,000 images of Earth, almost half of the total number of images taken from orbit by astronauts since the first Mercury missions. Scientists and the public around the world have access to CEO images captured by astronauts on ISS through the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth Web site (http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov). Between 400,000 and 1,000,000 digital photographs of Earth taken from the CEO collection are downloaded by the public each month. The Web site also features an Image of the Weekand searchable access to all the photographs. Scientific analyses using CEO data have been published in scientific journals in a wide variety of disciplines. A few highlights of these publications are summarized here.
Spatial resolution is a measure of the smallest object that can be resolved by the sensor, or the size of the area on the ground represented by each pixel determined by geometric properties of the altitude of the spacecraft, lens magnification, size of the original image, and look angle. To achieve maximum potential spatial resolution, a camera system must capture information at sufficient speed to eliminate the effects of relative ground motion. Using handheld motion compensation, ISS crewmembers have achieved a spatial resolution of less than 6 meters in photographs of Earth from ISS. The ISS provides great potential as a remote-sensing platform capable of providing high-resolution imagery of the Earths surface (Robinson and Evans 2002).
CEO images captured from ISS of Pacific Ocean atolls (islands consisting of a circular coral reef surrounding a lagoon) allowed for an assessment of spatial resolution on estimates of landscape parameters of the atolls. Data gathered indicated that landscape parameter estimates were fairly accurate regardless of spatial resolution changes from 5 to 30 meters. This study of ISS imagery showed that spatial resolution, as well as spectral resolution, is of equal importance when studying these formations (Andréfouët et al. 2003). The most detailed images of Fangatau Atoll, taken from ISS, were used to measure the biomass of the giant clam fishery at Fangatau Atoll with accuracy similar to that obtained from aerial photography (Andréfouët et al. 2005). Astronaut photographs of reefs in the Indian Ocean have been used as base maps for dive surveys of reef resources in the region (Quod et al. 2002).
Extracting clear water depths from a variety of sources allows the examination and mapping of shallow water from global to local scales. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used four sources of data to map shallow water bathymetry near U.S. coral reef areas. These included the sea-viewing wide field-of-view sensor (SeaWiFS) on board the OrbView 2 Satellite (SeaWiFS, allows global mapping within 1-kilometer pixels), the IKONOS satellite (global mapping within 4 meters), the Landsat Satellite (global mapping within 30 meter pixels), and handheld photography by the ISS crew (CEO local mapping within 6 meters). A new technique was applied to the blue and green bands from astronaut photography, allowing construction of a bathymetry map for Pearl and Hermes reef with accuracies similar to that obtained from IKONOS (Stumpf et al. 2003).
High-resolution astronaut photography collected from station has provided useful data for urban analysis, especially vegetation measurements. The accuracy of the data obtained from the astronaut photographs was similar to the data obtained by satellite remote sensors. The high-resolution astronaut photography obtained by the CEO investigation gives insights into vegetation density in urban areas (Stefanov and Robinson 2003). Imagery of cities at night captured during ISS Expedition 6 by Astronaut Don Pettit and subsequent astronauts aboard the ISS have provided researchers preliminary data for potential applications modeling urban landuse and population density. ISS photographs of cities at night are unique because they provide greater spatial resolution than any other source of city light data. Night time images of cities taken by ISS crew members have been used to support the concept of a new satellite sensor for night-time lighting called Nightsat (Elvidge et al. 2007 a; 2007b; Lulla 2003).
Imagery taken by astronauts has been collected and used to identify and build a global inventory of a new class of landform called megafans. These are large cones of sediments deposited by rivers that empty into large continental basins. Megafans are more easily identified using the wide, oblique views provided by astronaut photography. The results have been applied to interpreting features on both Earth and Mars. Wilkinson et al. (2005) mapped megafans in South America from imagery collected by Space Shuttle and ISS crews to understand how aquatic organisms might diversify in different river systems in South America. By identification of megafan systems and their processes that involve switching stream courses, habitat fragmentation and new habitat combinations can be hypothesized that, over time, may enable new speciation in aquatic systems. Another application of megafan landform analysis discusses how these features might provide a new perspective on mineral exploration (Wilkinson 2004). This analysis resulted in a patent (Wilkinson 2006). Finally, mapping megafans on Earth have provided a framework for interpreting similar landforms on Mars, supporting the existence of fluvial systems on Mars (Wilkinson et al. 2008).
CEO observations of large tabular icebergs in the South Atlantic Ocean stimulated new research with relevance to global warming and the break-up of Antarctic ice shelves (Scambos et al. 2005). Large chunks of ice calve off the Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and drift northward towards South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Polar scientists track these icebergs; as they drift into warmer waters, they melt and break-up. These icebergs can be used as a proxy for understanding how the ice shelves respond to global warming. Imagery collected by ISS astronauts in 2004 showed, for the first time, meltwater on one of the ice bergs. This indicated a different ice profile on the icebergs than previously modeled -- one with ramparts along the edge that pond the meltwater inboard. These observations allowed scientists to create new models for the forces experienced by these icebergs to help explain how they break up. This work has continued under CEO support of the International Polar Year (CEO-IPY).
In a different application that ties two ISS experiments together, Robinson et al. (2006) describe the benefits of photographing the Earth to the mental well-being of astronauts on long duration missions on the ISS. For more information about this study, see the Interactions results.
Elvidge CD, Cinzano P, Pettit DR, Arvesen J, Sutton PC, Small C, Nemani R, Longcore T, Rich C, Safran J, Weeks J, Ebener S. The Nightsat mission concept. International Journal of Remote Sensing. 2007 June 20; 28(12): 2645-2670.
Wilkinson MJ, Marshall LG, Lundberg JG. River behavior on megafans and potential influences on diversification and distribution of aquatic organisms. Journal of South American Earth Sciences. 2006; 21: 151-172.
Cembella AD, Ibarra DA, Diogene J, Dahl E. Harmful Algal Blooms and their Assessment in Fjords and Coastal Embayments. Oceanography. 2005; 18(2): 160-173.
Quod J, Bigot L, Blanchot J, Chabanet P, Durville P, Nicet J, Wendling B. Research and monitoring of the coral reefs of the French islands of the Indian Ocean. Assessment activities in 2002. Mission carried out in Glorieuses. Reunion: IFRECOR (l'Initiative Francaise pour les Recifs Corallines). 2002; 2. [French]
Kohlmann B, Wilkinson MJ. The Tarcoles Line: biogeographic effect of the Talamanca Range in lower Central America. Giornale Italiano do Entomologia. 2007; 12: 1-30. [Italian]
Stefanov WL, Robinson JA, Spraggins SA. Vegetation Measurements From Digital Astronaut Photography. International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing, and Spatial Information Sciences. 2003; 24: 185-189.
Lulla K. 2003 Nighttime Urban Imagery from International Space Station:Potential Applications for Urban Analyses and Modeling. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing. 2003; 69: 941-942.
Stumpf RP, Holderied K, Robinson JA, Feldman GC, Kuring N. Mapping water depths in clear water from space. Proceedings of the 13th Biennial Coastal Zone Conference, Baltimore, MD; 2003
Andrefouet S, Robinson JA, Hu C, Feldman GC, Salvat B, Payri C, Muller-Karger FE. Influence of the spatial resolution of SeaWiFS, Landsat 7, SPOT and International Space Station data on landscape parameters of Pacific Ocean atolls. Canadian Journal of Remote Sensing. 2003; 29(2): 210-218.
Andrefouet S, Gilbert A, Yan L, Remoissenet G, Payri C, Chancerelle Y. The remarkable population size of the endangered clam Tridacna maxima assessed in Fangatau Atoll using in situ remote sensing data. ICES Journal of Marine Science. 2005; ;62(6):1037-1048.(6): 1037-1048. DOI: 10.1016/j.icesjms.2005.04.006.
Wilkinson MJ, Allen CC, Oehler DZ, Salvotore MR. A New Fluvial Analog for the Ridge-Forming Unit, Northern Sinus Meridiani/Southwest Arabia Terra Mars. 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas; 2008 1392-1393.
Robinson JA, Amsbury DL, Liddle DA, Evans CA. Astronaut-acquired orbital photographs as digital data for remote sensing: spatial resolution. International Journal of Remote Sensing. 2002; 23(20): 4403-4438. DOI: 10.1080/01431160110107798.
Gebelein J, Eppler DB. How Earth remote sensing from the International Space Station complements current satellite-based sensors. International Journal of Remote Sensing. 2006; 27(13): 2613-2629. DOI: 10.1080/01431160600552250.
Jehl A, Farges T, Blanc E. Color pictures of sprites from non-dedicated observation on board the International Space Station. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. 2013 January; 118(1): 454-461. DOI: 10.1029/2012JA018144.
Elvidge CD, Safran J, Sutton PC, Cinzano P, Pettit DR, Arvesen J, Small C. Potential for Global Mapping of Development via Nightsat Mission. GeoJournal. 2007; 69(1-2): 45-53. DOI: 10.1007/s10708-007-9104-x.
Robinson JA, Evans CA. Space Station Allows Remote Sensing of Earth to within Six Meters. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union. 2002; 83: 185-188.
Scambos T, Sergienko O, Sargent A, MacAyeal D, Fastook J. ICESat profiles of tabular iceberg margins and iceberg breakups at low altitudes. Geophysical Research Letters. 2005; 32: L23S09. DOI: 10.1029/2005GL023802.^ back to top
Ground Based Results Publications
Spalding MD, Ravilious C, Green EP. Reef Mapping. Ewing, NJ: World Atlas of Coral Reefs; 2001.
Stern RJ, Beyth M, Bodechtel J, Wetzel H. Potential of the International Space Station for imaging Earth: Lessons from MOMS-2P aboard Mir. Geology. 2002; 30: 851-854.
Kratzenberg-Annies V. Space: A Journey of Discovery. New York City, NY: Space: A Journey of Discovery; 2005.
Scott KP, Runco S, Eppler DB. Pressurized Earth observations capabilities on board the International Space Station. 53rd International Astronautical Congress, The World Space Congress, Houston, TX; 2002 IAC-02-B.2.03.
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Aurora from ISS
NASA Image: ISS026E5121 - This astronaut photograph provides a view of tidal flats and channels near Sandy Cay, on the western side of Long Island and along the eastern margin of the Great Bahama Bank. The continuously exposed parts of the island are brown, a result of soil formation and vegetation growth. To the north of Sandy Cay, an off-white tidal flat composed of carbonate sediments is visible; light blue-green regions indicate shallow water on the tidal flat.
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NASA Image: ISS026E6255 - Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) observe and photograph numerous metropolitan areas when they are illuminated by sunlight, but the extent and pattern of these areas is perhaps best revealed at night by city lights. The surrounding darkness of the desert presents a stark contrast to the brightly lit street grid of the developed area. The Vegas Strip (pictured here) is reputed to be the brightest spot on Earth due to the concentration of lights on its hotels and casinos.
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NASA Image: ISS027E16922 - While many of the small glacier- and snowmelt-fed streams on the Tibetan Plateau give rise to major Southeast Asian rivers (including the Mekong and Yangtze), some empty into saline lakes such as Lake Ayakum. This astronaut photograph highlights two river deltas formed along its southwestern shoreline.
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NASA Image: ISS027E31908 - This astronaut photograph illustrates the Horseshoe 2 fire area (approximately 8,900 hectares, or 22,110 acres) and position of the fire within the mountains on May 15, 2011, as well as an extensive smoke plume extending to the east-northeast over a distance of at least 60 kilometers (approximately 40 miles). The Horseshoe 2 fire, which was located along the southeastern flank of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, began on May 8, 2011 and was fully contained June 25, 2011.
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NASA Image: ISS028E6687 - Estuaries are regions where fresh water from rivers and salt water from the ocean mix, and they are among the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth. This astronaut photograph, taken from the International Space Station, highlights two estuaries (Bombetoka Bay and Mahajamba Bay) along the northwestern coastline of Madagascar.
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NASA Image: ISS028E14782 - The Shoemaker (formerly Teague) Impact Structure—located in Western Australia to the southeast of the Carnarvon Range—presents an other-worldly appearance in this astronaut photograph. The Shoemaker impact site is approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter and clearly defined by concentric ring structures formed in sedimentary rocks (brown to dark brown, image center).
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NASA Image: ISS028E18218 - Like a comet streaking across the atmosphere, the Space Shuttle Atlantis left space for the final time on July 21, 2011, descending to a smooth landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This astronaut photograph, taken from the vantage of the International Space Station (ISS), shows the streak of an ionized plasma plume created by the shuttle’s descent through the atmosphere.
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NASA Image: ISS028E29679 - Clusters of yellow lights on the Indo-Gangetic Plain reveal numerous cities large and small in this astronaut photograph of northern India and northern Pakistan. Of the hundreds of clusters, the largest are the capital cities of Islamabad, Pakistan, and New Delhi, India. (For scale, these metropolitan areas are approximately 700 kilometers or 435 miles apart.) The lines of major highways connecting the cities also stand out. More subtle, but still visible at night, are the general outlines of the towering and partly cloud-covered Himalayas to the north (image left).
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NASA Image: ISS028E45516 - Hurricane Katia had diminished to Category 1 strength on the Saffir-Simpson scale by the time this astronaut photograph was taken, but it still presented an impressive cloud circulation as its center passed the northeastern coast of the United States on September 9, 2011. Crew members on the International Space Station can take images like this one by looking outwards at an angle through ISS windows—much like taking photographs of the ground from a commercial airliner window, albeit from an average altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles).
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NASA Image: ISS029E6020: Astronauts on the International Space Station used a digital camera to capture several hundred photographs of the Aurora Australis, or “southern lights,” while passing over the Indian Ocean on September 17, 2011. Solar panels and other sections of the ISS fill some of the upper right side of the photograph. The pressure and magnetic energy of the solar plasma stretches and twists the magnetic field of Earth like rubber bands, particularly in the tail on the night side. This energizes the particles trapped in our magnetic field; that energy is released suddenly as the field lines snap the particles down the field lines toward the north and south magnetic poles.
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NASA Image: ISS029E20003 - Volcan Parinacota (“flamingo lake” in the Aymara language) is a potentially active stratovolcano located on the Altiplano, a high plateau in the Andes mountains of west-central South America. This astronaut photograph from the International Space Station highlights the symmetrical cone of Parinacota, with its well-developed summit crater (elevation 6,348 meters, or 20,827 feet, above sea level). Dark brown to dark gray surfaces to the east and west of the summit include lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, and ash. A companion volcano, Pomerape, is located across a low saddle to the north. This volcano last erupted during the Pleistocene Epoch (approximately 3 million to 12,000 years ago). Together, Parinacota and Pomerape form the Nevados de Payachata volcanic area. The summits of both volcanoes are covered by white snowpack and small glaciers.
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NASA Image: ISS029E29638 - This astronaut photograph highlights the coral reef atolls known as Rowley Shoals, located in the southwestern Timor Sea, off the northwestern Australia coastline. Three reef areas make up the shoals—Mermaid Reef, Clerke Reef, and Imperieuse Reef—which extend approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from northeast to southwest.
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