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October 22, 2001

Catherine E. Watson
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
(Phone: 281/483-5111)

Release: J01-94

NASA Astronaut Photos Contribute to New Coral Reef Atlas

A newly released atlas detailing coral reefs around the world contains numerous photographs taken by NASA astronauts. These photographs provide a unique perspective on coral reef geography, coastal development and the relationship of reefs to various land habitats.

“These images from space are a beautiful and important way of bringing the coral maps to life. They enable the reader to connect between the maps and the real world; to see the reefs as they are, hard up against towns and roads, forests and rivers, or lying way out in deep oceanic waters," said Dr. Mark Spalding, lead author of the atlas at the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, produced by the UNEP-WCMC, is a detailed and definitive account of the current state of our planet’s coral reefs. The 428-page atlas, published by the University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., was released Sept. 11.

Images for the atlas were selected from a database of over 400,000 Earth photographs that have been taken by NASA astronauts since the U.S. began sending humans into space. The selection and development of images for the atlas was a collaboration between the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, the ReefBase project at the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management in Malaysia, and authors of the atlas at the UNEP-WCMC in Cambridge, England. “Astronaut photography of coral reefs is important on a variety of levels,” said Dr. Julie A. Robinson, a Lockheed Martin senior scientist who coordinates coral reef projects at JSC. “Because they are photographs, they are accessible to a non-technical audience. However, they also can be used as quantitative scientific data to produce basic reef maps and to supplement other satellite data.”

Photographs of the Earth from orbit began with the first human missions in the 1960s and have continued to the present, including space shuttle, shuttle-Mir, and International Space Station missions. Ongoing NASA Earth photography projects are focusing on diverse topics such as changes in river deltas, urbanization, global biomass burning and the global transport of dust.

“Earth imagery acquired by astronauts is making significant contributions in NASA’s efforts to understand global issues,” said Dr. Kamlesh Lulla, Chief Scientist for Earth Observations at JSC. “Coral reefs are just one example of Earth remote sensing information that can be collected using astronaut photography. Our database of astronaut photography is a national resource.”

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse habitats in the world. They are host to an extraordinary variety of marine plants and animals. They are also one of the world’s most fragile and endangered ecosystems. Coral reefs are a significant source of food and offer countless benefits to humans, including supplying compounds for pharmaceuticals.

The NASA Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth can be accessed via the Web at Additional information on the World Atlas of Coral Reefs can be found on the UNEP-WCMC Web site at


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