ISS007 Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Photographic Highlights

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Merapi Volcano, Java: At 2,911 meters, the summit of Merapi Volcano and its vigorous steam plume rises above a bank of stratus clouds on its southern flank on August 24, 2003. One of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, it has been almost continuously active for nearly ten years, including periodic pyroclastic flows (hot ash and rock debris) and avalanches. The volcano is located less than 25 miles north of the city of Yogykarta in central Java. More than 50,000 people live adjacent the treacherous southwestern slope, where volcanic material often sloughs from the unstable summit. Note the deep ravines on the eastern slopes providing rich soils and moisture to the agriculture below.
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Hurricane Fabian: Astronauts onboard the International Space Station photographed Hurricane Fabian on September 4, 2003 as it churned its way towards Bermuda. At the time the photo was taken, Fabian had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph and was moving to the north-northwest at 12 mph.
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Egypt’s Great Pyramids of Giza: All astronauts are interested in observing unique human footprints from space, and especially those reflecting thousands of years of human activities. The region of the Great Pyramids of Giza—the last remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—is a favorite target. Although the pyramids have been imaged many times before by astronauts (for example: Space Station View of the Pyramids at Giza) , each new image provides a unique look at the archeological monument, depending on the viewing angle from the ISS and the illumination from the sun.

Giza is a royal burial place, commissioned and built by pharaohs during the fourth dynasty around 2550 BC. Started by Khufu, continued by his son Khafre (Khafre pyramid and the Sphinx), and later by his son, Menkaure, the complex also includes many tombs and temples for queens, other members of royal families, and royal attendants.

The low sun angle in this image allows for many of the smaller surrounding monuments to be observed. Further, the sides of the pyramid align with the cardinal directions. In this view, the shadows from afternoon sun provide directional arrows that point east. For scale, the current length of the large pyramid at the base is 227 m (745 ft), and the height is 137 m (449).

Today, Giza is a rapidly growing region of Cairo. Population growth in Egypt continues to soar, leading to new construction. New roads for large new developments are obvious in the desert hills northwest and southwest of the pyramids. Documenting patterns of urban growth around the world is a prime science objective for Earth photography by ISS astronauts.

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Fires in British Columbia: The 2003 fire season was another very active one for western North America, especially in the Canadian province of British Columbia where some 620,000 acres of forest were consumed in almost 2,500 fires. Here the Rocky Mountains have both lofty, snow-capped peaks and long, narrow valleys that create special conditions and problems with air quality from these smoky fires.

This image taken by the crew of the International Space Station on August 20, 2003, illustrates how smoke has become trapped in valleys. Normally air temperature decreases with altitude; in other words, the higher up you are, the colder it is. Warmer, more buoyant air near the surface of the Earth usually rises into the atmosphere, carrying away air pollutants such as smoke.

However, sometimes the "higher equals colder" relationship breaks down, for example, here in the northern Rockies, where light winds and cold air drainage from the higher elevations have created "temperature inversions," making the air in the valley colder and denser than the air at the mountain peaks. The cold dense air does not rise, but intsead stays trapped—along with the smoke—in the valleys. Note how the snowy peaks of the mountains are relatively smoke-free while the long, north-south valleys of Kootenay Lake and Columbia River are filled with trapped aerosols from the plumes of the large fires situated to the southwest. Meanwhile shifting winds have now swept the bulk of the plumes southeastward over the Columbia River Basin of Washington.

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Austin, Texas: It was Texas hot when this view of the capital city of Austin was taken in late July by astronaut Ed Lu. Adding to the rising temperatures were heated debates in the Texas Capitol Building, where a special session had convened. Eleven democratic senators thwarted a redistricting vote by disappearing from the state. Were Lu, and his Expedition 7 partner Yuri Malenchenko looking for the missing democratic senators? We’ll never know, but they expanded their Austin search a week later with a wider view of Austin, taken with a 400 mm lens on August 6.

Austin is an expanding city in the Texas hill country. A few decades ago Austin was known as a place where University of Texas students and state politicians co-existed along the banks of the Colorado River (seen snaking along the lower left of the image). Today, the exploding population (44% growth between 1990 and 2000) and increasing development stresses local resources like water, green space, and transportation networks, prompting city planners to think through scenarios for future development.

Documenting city environments and city footprints over time is one of the science objectives of the Crew Earth Observations payload on the International Space Station. Astronauts have always enjoyed observing cities around the world. These images of Austin provide a 2003 baseline for monitoring its regional development and growth.

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Changes in the Mamore River, Bolivia: The Mamore River drains north from the Andes Mts. in lowland Bolivia. An image taken in July 2003 from the International Space Station (ISS007-E-10797, 14 June 2003, 12:36 GMT) shows an 85 km stretch of the river south of the lowland town of Trinidad in the Beni Province. A 55-km stretch (centered at 15.2°S 66°W) was rectified to the commercially available 1990 edition of the Landsat TM imagery of the world.

Numerous changes in river pattern are visible in the decade since the Landsat imagery was acquired. A pilot study was undertaken to characterize these rapid changes. Tie points were selected for geomorphic features which do not undergo short-term change- i. e. oxbow lakes and subsidence lakes in the floodplain. The ISS image was enhanced slightly to reveal the Mamore River channel.

The ISS image (top) shows Mamore River meandering in a floodplain with numerous contorted channel traces indicating former positions of the river. The darker areas are riverine forest, the lighter areas tropical savanna. The river trace as it was in 1990 (bottom) is superimposed on the 2003 handheld image.


  1. Meander cutoffs: In two locations, the Mamore has straightened its course by meander cutoff (c-upper image). The opposite trend appears to the north (right) where the course has become more sinuous.

  2. Some structural control, possibly by buried faults, appears to have maintained the position and straightness of the E-W stretch (EW).

  3. An old course has controlled the position of a sector of the new course: the radius of curvature of the northernmost meander is sharper than most bends because the new course has occupied a prior course (a-far right, upper image).

  4. Ten-fifteen years of river movement has had wider impacts on the valley floor:

    • two new lakes been formed where the large meanders have been cut off (n)

    • several lakes have decreased in size, especially two elongated lakes that have been reduced in length by more than 50% (s)

    • lakes have been destroyed entirely (x-lower figure)

    • many lakes are further from the main river and many closer: this nearness factor determines whether or not lakes receive nutrient rich inflow from the main river during floods. It is possible that these kinds of disturbances-the creation and destruction of habitat-may be a major cause of biodiversity generation in equatorial rainforests.

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Noctilucent Clouds: The sliver of the setting moon and clouds that shine at night—noctilucent clouds—caught the eye of astronaut Ed Lu aboard the International Space Station (ISS) last week.

Noctilucent clouds are very high clouds that look like cirrus clouds, but are much higher (75-90 km above the Earth’s surface) than clouds that we observe every day. They are optically thin and can only be observed during twilight hours, when the sun is just below the horizon and only shines on the uppermost atmosphere. In this image, the limb of the Earth at the bottom transitions into the orange-colored troposphere, the lowest and most dense portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. The troposphere ends abruptly at the tropopause, which appears in the image as the sharp boundary between the orange- and blue- colored atmosphere. The silvery-blue noctilucent clouds are far above this boundary.

This image was taken July 27, 2003 when the ISS was over central Asia. June and July is the season for noctilucent clouds in the northern hemisphere—they form in the polar mesosphere, generally above 50 degrees latitude. Recent studies address why noctilucent clouds exist, whether the frequency of occurrence has increased throughout the 20th century (some researchers believe they have), and whether their frequency reflects human activities. Astronauts and cosmonauts have observed them over northern latitudes (Europe, Russia) in the past, but this summer’s display has been remarkable.

Zahn, U. , Are Noctilucent Clouds Truly a “Miner’s Canary” for Global Change?, Eos, Vol. 84, No. 28, July 15, 2003


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Dust Storm over the Southern Red Sea: Which came first, the clouds or the dust? Both clouds and dust can be important factors influencing regional climate, and they are frequently observed together.

In this view taken from the International Space Station, two images were merged to create a mosaic of a dust storm and thunderstorm over the Red Sea. By interpreting the mosaic, we make a guess about which came first.

Saudi Arabia’s southernmost coast facing the Red Sea appears in the foreground, and the African side of the Red Sea in Eritrea appears at the top of this view, slightly obscured under a light screen of dust. Wind directions on the day this view was taken (June 22, 2003) are difficult to interpret. Southeasterly flow from the Arabian Sea, related to monsoonal wind fields, seems to be dominant, and probably explains the more distant dust at the top of the view. As the southeasterly winds ascend over the hills that flank that Red Sea (center left), a local thunderstorm has developed. Downdrafts from the dying storm probably generated at least some of the dust seen out over the Red Sea.

It is common to see dust related to thunderstorms in this way. At a broader scale, however, the opposite is more often true: regional dust in the atmosphere tends to reduce cloud development and thus rainfall. The southern Arabian Peninsula is a center of dust generation in global terms and dust clouds are often imaged over the Red Sea by astronauts. Dust is transported in both directions across the Sea, from Arabian and from Saharan sources. Astronaut observations of dust and clouds provide useful information about their interactions (mosaicked with image ISS007-E-7878.

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Omaha and Council Bluffs on the Lewis and Clark Trail: The Missouri River served as a vital waterway for transport of the epic Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, this mighty river meanders southward through a broad floodplain some two to eight miles wide, bordered by dissected bluffs. In late July 1804, the expedition paused to rest and repair their boats and planned the “first” Native American council (Council Bluff) with representatives of the Otoe Tribe.

This photograph was taken by the Expedition 7 crew of the International Space Station on June 13, 2003, and is among the first acquisitions of an ongoing effort to document from space dozens of historical sites along the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s entire route. In this near-vertical view of Omaha—with a population estimated at more than three quarters of a million residents—the city is situated on high ground to the west of the river while Eppley Airfield and the town of Council Bluffs are located on the floodplain.

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First Recorded Eruption of Anatahan Volcano: It is sleep time on the International Space Station, and astronaut Ed Lu is supposed to be asleep. He is looking out the window and admiring the Pacific Ocean below. Suddenly he realizes something is strange. A huge yellowish-brown plume is sweeping across hundreds of miles of ocean. A major volcanic eruption is in progress—he grabs a camera and shoots.

Space Station crewmembers receive a daily list of photographic targets that include areas of scientific interest and dynamic events. In this case, though, the crew observed the eruption before news had spread to the international media or to the networks that track volcanic events worldwide. Ed checked with NASA Cap Com to find out whether it really was a volcano and precisely where the eruption was occurring.

The eruption was from the volcano on Anatahan Island, which is located 80 miles north of Saipan and is part of the Northern Mariana Island Chain. This small island, 6 miles long by 2 miles wide, has been uninhabited since 1990 when residents were evacuated because of a strong earthquake. The lower photograph shows how Anatahan looked from the Space Shuttle in 1996 (photo STS080-708-28).

On the night of May 10, the Anatahan Volcano announced itself with a vigorous eruption that sent high-level ash over a wide area. About 12 hours later, on May 11 at 00:19 GMT, the crew of the International Space Station observed and photographed this ash plume, describing it as huge. By May 15 a state of emergency had been declared in the Northern Mariana Islands as the eruption appeared to be intensifying.

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