Shuttle-Mir Program Earth Science
Early Results
Cynthia A. Evans
Office of Earth Sciences
NASA/Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.

Shannon Lucid

John Blaha

Jerry Linenger

     The Johnson Space Center's Office of Earth Sciences is participating in the NASA-Mir science program aboard the Russian Mir Space Station. The prime experiment sponsored by the branch is Visual Observations of Earth. Mir-based astronauts and cosmonauts photograph Earth's surface throughout their long-duration missions. Like the Shuttle-based Earth observations program, the focus of the NASA-Mir Visual Observations of Earth Experiment is to document changes on Earth's surface on a global scale. The prime difference between the Shuttle and Mir-based programs is that the long-duration crew members can observe and record a continuum of changes on the Earth, including seasonal changes, and learn to recognize both the subtle changes as well as the big events.

     The experiment design for Visual Earth Observations is simple: provide a Hasselblad 70 mm camera (equipped with 100 and 250 mm lenses) and ample film to the crew, a list of sites on Earth's surface, and request photography of the sites when conditions allow. A key component of this experiment is crew initiative: through our experience from the Space Shuttle, we know that some of the best views and most interesting phenomena cannot be anticipated, but can be documented by well-trained astronaut observers. Events occur on different time scales, and crews on Mir observe and record different Earth dynamics on daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal time frames.

     The primary goal of Visual Observations is to document change on Earth's surface, especially environmental changes and dynamic processes (e.g. flooding of Caspian Sea, drying of Aral Sea, urban growth and landuse changes around the world, events like tropical storms, large fires and volcanic eruptions). These data are assimilated into the larger database of Earth photographs taken by astronauts and cosmonauts, and are used for new and continuing studies on global changes (e.g. Lulla, et al, 1996).

     About 19,000 images of the Earth have been returned from NASA-Mir missions so far. There are several examples of imagery in the Mir 21, 22, and 23 data sets which are unique to the JSC Earth observations database (which contains almost 300,000 images of the Earth). If the experiences of the NASA-Mir astronauts are typical, Earth observations on future long-duration missions on the International Space Station (ISS) will greatly improve our database of imagery and our understanding of processes and changes on the Earth's surface.

     A second important objective of the NASA-Mir Visual Observations Experiment was to use an operational environment to develop approach and tools for ISS-based Earth observations. The NASA 2, 3 and 4 missions have served well to prepare the Office of Earth Sciences for long-duration science on the ISS. Training and operational support developed and tested on the Mir missions include interactive electronic training and reference software, Earth Observations Aid, currently operating on the COSS machine, and a JSC-based interactive map and planning program (MOSS) for ingesting Mir vector and lighting conditions to allow planning for site photography. Together with the crew, we have also learned important changes in crew operations, with implications about the training and equipment provided to the crew while on orbit. Some of the lessons learned are listed below.

Mir as an International Space Station (ISS) test bed for:

1. Ground-based operations
  • Development of an interactive map-based program to propagate and display several days of Earth observations opportunities based on current vectors, and construct a site acquisition (AKA "Earth Obs. Shopping List")
  • Communications and planning through remote control centers

2. Crew on-orbit operations

     As we review the imagery of the Earth taken by the Mir-based astronauts, some trends in their photography become clear. First, photographic techniques and sense of geography rapidly improve. It also appears as though their ability to see and recognize new sites and unique photographic opportunities on the Earth's surface increases. New regions of the world (like parts of Europe, and southern Patagonia) have been photographed by the NASA-Mir astronauts. Long-duration missions allow the crews to wait for and recognize better chances for photographing these elusive parts of the Earth's surface. We are convinced that the crew engage in more sophisticated observations of the Earth during their long-duration missions.

     The NASA-Mir missions have also allowed us the chance to evaluate on-orbit procedures like film reloading, film management, data recording, and camera maintenance. Generally these operations are not performed by the crew on shorter Shuttle missions.

     The crew operate in a fairly autonomous manner: data acquisition is based on weekly information provided to the crew member from the ground, and stand-alone software programs (Earth Observations Aid), with new orbit track/site acquisition predictive capabilities.

General Operational Views


Jerry Linenger in the Spektr module on Mir packing part of his 70 mm film.


Astronaut Jerry Linenger in Kvant-2 photographing Earth with the Hasselblad 70 mm camera.


The best vantage point for viewing the Space Shuttle is from another space craft in low-Earth orbit. This view shows Atlantis (STS-76) as she approaches the Mir station in March 1996.

     The selection of target sites was conducted jointly between the Russian and U.S. scientists. There is a heavy concentration of Asian environmental sites which are well-studied by the Russian scientists (such as the Aral and Caspian Seas, several sites in the Ukraine and Russian agriculture and industry belt). In addition, there is a clear emphasis on regions with dramatic changes in landuse (Amazon basin, Panama, Cascade Mountains, Philippines, Russian Far East, Ukrainian agriculture). Water issues like snow levels and glacier endpoints in high mountain regions (Pamir, Karakoram and Tian Shan Mountains, Southern Andes) and water bodies with large fluctuations in the water levels (Aral Sea, Caspian Sea, Great Salt Lake, Lake Chad, Nile River system) are also prime targets. Sites displaying natural dynamics include the volcanic regions of Kamchatka, Philippines, Andes, New Zealand and the Cascade Mountains. Regional dynamic phenomena such as the production of aerosol blankets, phenomena which are best imaged in off-nadir imagery from low-Earth orbit, include China's Red Basin, the eastern U.S. urban zone, the Amazon basin during the burn season and the South Africa industrial core. Some of the world's most dynamic coastal regions are also targeted (the Mississippi delta, Texas coast, Yellow River delta). Ocean processes are documented in the equatorial Pacific, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf Stream, current junctures off Japan and the Argentinean coasts.

     We provide some examples from the NASA 2, 3, and 4 missions to illustrate the variety of Earth Science data resulting thus far from the NASA-Mir program. These photos illustrate the value of the human observer to capture dynamic and ephemeral phenomena.

Recommended citation (MLA-Style): Evans, C. A. 1997. "Phase I Earth Science: Early Results" Mission Reports, Office of Earth Sciences, NASA Johnson Space Center. <> ()