This timeline gives a comprehensive overview of the history of space-based Earth observations from the late 1940s onward, including historic events, payloads, facilities, and investigations that contributed to the current understanding of Earth and space sciences. Ongoing and planned mission schedules are subject to change. Information in the timeline originated mainly from pre-existing NASA sources. Original timeline compiled by L. Jones and A. Cameron.
October 24, 1946
V-2 No. 13: The White Sands rocket was a modified German V-2 missile that became the first man-made object to take a photo of Earth from outer space.
Unmanned Mercury test flights brought back hundreds of photographs useful to the scientific community.
August 7, 1959
Explorer 6 featured a photocell scanner that transmitted a crude picture of Earth's surface and cloud cover from a distance of 17,000 miles. The first photograph ever taken Earth by a U.S. satellite depicted a crescent shape of part of the planet in sunlight. At the time, Explorer 6 was crossing Mexico.
December 1960 - May 1963
Dozens of handheld photographs were taken during the manned Mercury flights, America's first human space flight program.
March 1965 - November 1966
Background: The Gemini program defined and tested the skills NASA would need to go to the Moon in the 1960s and '70s. Gemini had four main goals: to test an astronaut's ability to fly long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space), to understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit around the Earth and the moon, to perfect re-entry and landing methods, and to further understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts.
Earth Observation: 10 manned flights brought in about 2,400 photographs.
January 1967 - December 1972
This view of southern California as seen from the Apollo 7 spacecraft in 1968 during its 18th revolution of Earth. Photographed from an altitude of 124 nautical miles (AS07-11-2022).
View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap (AS17-148-22727).
Background: Apollo was the NASA program that resulted in American astronauts making a total of 11 spaceflights and walking on the moon. The first four flights tested the equipment and six of the other seven flights landed on the moon. The first moon landing was in 1969 and the last was in 1972.
Earth Observation: Investigators verified the concept of applying multispectral, multi-temporal imagery from space for vegetation mapping and monitoring land use.
May 1973 - February 1974
View of the Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Atlantic coast area taken as part of the Skylab 4 Earth Resources Experiments Package S190-B, a five-inch Earth terrain infrared camera.
Background: A United States space station launched and operated by NASA, was occupied for about 24 weeks - the only space station the U.S. has exclusively operated. During the manned mission, the Earth Resources Experiment (EREP) consisted of multiple tests that involved cameras, a multi-spectral scanner, spectrometer, and microwave devices in conjunction with field investigations and aerial remote-sensing flights.
Earth Observation: Skylab included a workshop, a solar observatory, and other systems necessary for crew survival and scientific experiments. The Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) observatory was attached to the station and made observations at a variety of wavelengths, including X-rays, ultraviolet, and visible light.
Advantages of remote sensing: It provides geographically rigorous data that allows for spatiotemporal analysis; for example, monitoring of ecosystems that allow scientists to predict the distribution of species, as well as detecting both natural occurring and human-made pollutants. Data collected from orbital sensors allowed for the extension of traditional data provided by field work over greater spatial scales.
April 1981 - July 2011
Space Shuttle Program
Astronaut photography continued throughout and beyond the Space Shuttle Era, between the first launch on April 12, 1981 and the final landing on July 21, 2011.
April 1994 - October 1994
The Space Shuttle Endeavor carried the Space Radar Laboratory, which held the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C with the X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar. This was the most advanced civilian SAR ever built, providing the first multi-frequency radar data sets from space. It collected data over approximately 38.5 million miles of Earth, the equivalent of 20 percent of the planet. More than 400 sites were imaged, including 19 primary observation sites in Brazil, Michigan, North Carolina, and Central Europe.
Highlight: Provided information about the Earth's changing environment, as well as opening up new areas of potential use for spaceborne imaging to include natural hazard assessments.
April 1994 - October 1994
These are color composite radar images showing the area around Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The images were acquired by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on April 14, 1994 (left image) and October 5, 1994 (right image).
Color Analysis: The red hue on the high slopes shows the distribution of ash deposited during the 1991 eruption. Three years after the eruption, the river valleys, represented by the darker regions radiating from summits, continue to flood during heavy rains. Significant changes have occurred in the intervening five months along the Pasig-Potero rivers when the images are compared.
September 30, 1994
One of the first photos taken by the crew members on launch day of the Space Shuttle Endeavour was this 70mm frame of the Kliuchevskoi volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Hardware in Endeavour's cargo bay was taking radar data of the event in support of the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-2) project.
March 1995 - May 1998
The Shuttle Mir Program
The Shuttle-Mir Program was a collaborative space program between Russia and the United States, which involved American Space Shuttles visiting the Russian space station Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir. The project, sometimes called "Phase One", was intended to allow the United States to learn from Russian experience with long-duration spaceflight and to foster a spirit of cooperation between the two nations and their space agencies, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS).
Earth Observation: During the nine missions, over 22,000 Earth images were taken that documented long-term study sites and dynamic events on the Earth's surface. These events included land use change, seasonal change and long-term climate change, atmospheric events, ocean and coastal dynamic features, volcanoes, and cities/regional sites.
April 15, 1999
Landsat 7 was successfully launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) - the Earth observing component on the satellite - includes features that make it versatile and efficient for global change studies, land cover monitoring, and large area mapping.
Later, false-color composite images, like the one above of Hawaii, would be constructed from data gathered by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) instrument.
May 1, 1999
A radar image of Mount Rainier in Washington state. The volcano last erupted about 150 years ago and numerous large floods and debris flows have originated on its slopes during the last century. Today, the volcano is heavily mantled with glaciers and snow fields. Image was acquired by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its 20th orbit.
February 15, 2000
This shaded relief map uses color to show the elevation as measured by SRTM. Colors range from green at the lowest elevations to reddish at the highest elevations. Shaded relief maps are commonly used in applications such as geologic mapping and land use planning.
The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) payload aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor launched into space.
Background: The SRTM was an international research effort that obtained radar return information on a near-global scale from 56°S to 60°N, to generate the most complete high-resolution digital topographic database of Earth prior to the release of the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer Global Digital Elevation Model (ASTER GDEM) in 2009.
Building on previous remote sensing technology, SRTM consisted of a specially modified radar system that flew on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour during the 11-day STS-99 mission in February 2000.
Earth Observation: Obtained the first-ever, near-global, high-resolution data set of Earth's topography covering nearly 80 percent of Earth's land surface.
October 31, 2000
A Soyuz spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Expedition 1 Commander William M. Shepherd of NASA and cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko of ROSCOSMOS on board. The trio arrived at the International Space Station on November 2, marking the start of uninterrupted human presence on the International Space Station (ISS).
November 1, 2000
The International Charter "Space and Major Disasters" officially started operation after the Canadian Space Agency signed onto the charter. The International Charter is composed of space agencies and space system operators from around the world who work together to provide satellite imagery for disaster monitoring purposes.
November 2000 - ISS Duration
Image over downtown Houston, Texas taken by the Expedition 1 crew (ISS001-E-6283)
Crew Earth Observations (CEO): Crew members on the International Space Station photograph the Earth from their unique point of view in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This internal facility has been operational since November 2000, when humans started living onboard the ISS. The photographs are used to record how the planet changes over time, from human-caused changes like urban growth and reservoir construction, to natural dynamic events such as hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions. These images also assist in monitoring natural disasters and supporting disaster relief in programs such as the NASA Earth Science Disaster Program.
March 2001 - ISS Duration
This is a view of the EarthKAM payload setup in the Window Observation Research Facility (WORF).
Sally Ride Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students (Sally Ride EarthKAM) is a NASA-sponsored education program that enables thousands of students to photograph and examine Earth from the unique perspective of space. Initiated by Dr. Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, EarthKAM has conducted over 30 missions on ISS and offers more than 24,000 photos of the Earth. No other NASA program has given students direct control of an instrument flying on a spacecraft orbiting Earth, and as a result, students assume an unparalleled personal ownership in the study and analysis of their Earth photography.
October 2007 - April 2017
Solar-SOLSPEC was first operated on ISS Expedition 16 in October 2007. SOLAR is an European Space Agency (ESA) science observatory on the Columbus Laboratory on the ISS.
Function: The instruments gather data outside of Earth's atmosphere, further increasing our knowledge of solar radiation and solar radiation flux, which is important to Earth-based and spaceborne systems, as well as to advanced climate studies.
February 2008 - March 2010
The Columbus External Payload Facility (Columbus-EPF) was transported to the International Space Station with the European Columbus science laboratory on STS-122/1E in February 2008.
Function: Provides four attachment sites for payloads and payload facilities: one nadir, one zenith, and two starboard sites.
March 2010 - September 2017
WORF was launched on Flight 19A (STS-131) at the beginning of Increment 23 on April 5, 2010. The first photograph taken using WORF occurred on January 21, 2011 by Ag Cam.
Function: The Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) provides the capability for remotely operated payloads and crew members to perform Earth and space science research, including hand held photography. WORF is installed over the nadir (Earth facing) window in the U.S. Laboratory, also known as Destiny. The window has the highest quality optics ever flown on a human-occupied spacecraft.
May 2012 - March 2015
ISERV captured this photograph from the ISS showing damaged vegetation and debris left behind by a powerful tornado that passed through Louisville, Mississippi.
The ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System (ISERV) is a fully automated image data acquisition system that flew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and was deployed in the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) rack within the Destiny module.
Function: The ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System (ISERV) automatically took images of Earth through a small telescope with an off-the-shelf digital camera mounted in the International Space Station's Destiny module. When ISERV ran, it captured 3 images per second that covered approximately a 19 km x 11 km area each. The goal was to improve automatic image capturing and data transfer, but the images taken in the experiment could also help environmental scientists, disaster responders and other Earth-based users.
May 2012 - March 2015
Astronaut photographs like this one of Mount Etna, a stratovolcano in Italy that has been in a near-constant state of eruption throughout recorded history, are useful in studying how disasters impact the surrounding area. Four major flank eruption events have occurred over the last 15 years, each of which has posed a serious threat to the nearby population.
March 2014 - August 2019
The High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment places four commercially available HD cameras on the exterior of the space station and uses them to stream live video of Earth for viewing online. Although HDEV captures gorgeous imagery of the Earth, the primary purpose of the payload is monitoring the rate at which HD video camera image quality degrades when exposed to the space environment
September 2014 - November 2016
ISS-RapidScat was a replacement for NASA's QuikScat Earth satellite, which monitored ocean winds to provide essential measurements used in weather predictions, including hurricane monitoring.
Function: ISS-RapidScat used the unique vantage point of the space station to provide near-real-time monitoring of ocean winds, which are critical in determining regional weather patterns.
Earth Observations: The measurements were used by agencies worldwide for weather and marine forecasting and tropical cyclone monitoring. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Navy, along with European and Indian weather agencies routinely used the data.
This graphic shows winds near the sea surface tightening into a vortex near the center of the super typhoon that swept towards Taiwan in early July 2016, winds approached 110 kilometers (68 miles) per hour just over the water's surface.
January 2015 - October 2018
The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) launched in January of 2015, is a lidar remote sensing instrument that will provide range-resolved profile measurements of atmospheric aerosols and clouds from the ISS. The instrument is located on the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility (JEM-EF) on the International Space Station (ISS).
Earth Observation: CATS investigation uses a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system to measure the location, composition and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, aerosols and other particulates in the atmosphere.
March 2016 - February 2019
Meteor Composition Determination (Meteor) is an International Space Station payload. Meteor makes the first space-based observations of the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth's atmosphere.
Earth Observation: Meteors are relatively rare, and are difficult to monitor from the ground because of the interference created by Earth's atmosphere. The Meteor investigation takes high-resolution video and images of the atmosphere and uses a software program to search for bright spots, which can later be analyzed on the ground. Investigating the elemental composition of meteors is important to our understanding of how the planets developed.
March 2016 - ISS Duration
Teledyne Brown Engineering developed the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES), an Earth imaging platform, as part of the company's new commercial space-based digital imaging business.
Earth Observation: MUSES hosts Earth-viewing instruments, including high-resolution digital cameras, hyperspectral imagers, precision pointing instruments, and other accommodations. It can host up to four payloads simultaneously, and offers the ability to change, upgrade, and robotically service those instruments.
Developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the US company Teledyne Brown Engineering (TBE), the DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) is mounted on the MUSES platform. The scientific and commercial benefits include better management of agricultural and forest ecosystems, urban development, natural and environmental disaster assessment, and humanitarian response.
February 2017 - April 2020
This image of storm clouds shows lightning as a white glow to the right of center. The yellow lit areas beneath the clouds are the night lights from the highly populated areas of Los Angeles and San Diego (ISS036-E-22863).
The Space Test Program-H5-Lightning Imaging Sensor (STP-H5 LIS) uses a lightning detecting sensor on the International Space Station to measure lightning around the world. Improved understanding of lightning and its connections to weather provides important insight for weather forecasting, aircraft and spacecraft safety, atmospheric chemistry and physics, and climate change.
February 2017 - ISS Duration
As a result of the US Clear Air Act mandate in 1990, SAGE instruments observed ozone concentrations, water vapor, aerosols, and trace gasses. The SAGE III instrument will continue this legacy of accurate measurements from the International Space Station.
The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III-ISS (SAGE III-ISS) provides crucial, long-term measurements that will help humans understand and care for Earth's atmosphere. SAGE III-ISS measures Earth's sunscreen, or ozone, along with other gases and aerosols, or tiny particles in the atmosphere by locking onto the sun or moon and scanning the Earth limb. The instrument makes these measurements from the unique vantage point of the International Space Station which helps maximize the scientific value of SAGE III-ISS observations.
September 2017 - October 2020
The picture on the left shows a calm sun from October 2010. The right side, from October 2012, shows a much more active and varied solar atmosphere as the sun moves closer to peak solar activity, or solar maximum.
Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS) measures total solar irradiance (TSI) and solar spectral irradiance (SSI). TSI helps establish Earth's total energy input while SSI contributes to understanding how Earth's atmosphere responds to solar output changes. Knowing the magnitude and variability of solar irradiance is essential to understanding Earth's climate. Solar irradiance represents one of the longest climate data records derived from space-based observations (almost 40 years of data) and researchers anticipate maintaining continuity of that record with TSIS.
February 2018 - April 2020
ECOSTRESS captured surface temperature variations in Los Angeles, California between July 22 and August 14 at different times of day. The images show how different surfaces within the cityscape warm and cool throughout the day. They have been colored to show the hottest areas in red, warm areas in orange and yellow, and cooler areas in blue.
The ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) investigation provides the first-ever high spatiotemporal (space-time) resolution thermal infrared measurements of the surface of the Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). Taken at varying times throughout the daylight cycle, these high spatiotemporal thermal infrared measurements enable ECOSTRESS to answer several key science questions related to water stress in plants and how selected regions may respond to future changes in climate.
April 2018 - October 2021
Thunderstorm seen from the Space Station.
The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) is a climate observatory for the International Space Station - ISS. It is developed by the ASIM consortium for ESA. The ASIM components, originally planned to be completed in 2014, were launched on April 2, 2018 and mounted on the Columbus External Payload Facility on April 13, 2018.
Earth Observation: The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) is an Earth observation facility for the study of severe thunderstorms and their role in the Earth's atmosphere and climate. Upper-atmospheric lightning, known as transient luminous events or terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, occurs well above the altitudes of normal lightning and storm clouds with a process of run-away electron discharge being suggested as the main mechanism. ASIM studies these high-altitude electrical discharges from the external payload platform on the Columbus module of the International Space Station.
October 2018 - March 2020
GEDI's 80cm Telescopte through which received light is collected.
The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) provides high-quality laser ranging observations of the Earth's forests and topography required to advance the understanding of important carbon and water cycling processes, biodiversity, and habitat. GEDI is mounted on the Japanese Experiment Module's Exposed Facility (JEM-EF) and provides the first high-resolution observations of forest vertical structure at a global scale.
April 2019 - April 2021
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) is a space instrument that will investigate important questions about the distribution of carbon dioxide on Earth as it relates to growing urban populations and changing patterns of fossil fuel combustion. OCO-3 will explore, for the first time, daily variations in the release and uptake of carbon dioxide by plants and trees in the major tropical rain forests of South America, Africa, and South-East Asia, the largest stores of above ground carbon on our planet. NASA developed and assembled the instrument using spare materials from OCO-2, and will host the instrument on the International Space Station.
August 2019 - Ongoing
The Mini-Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) is designed to perform observations of the UV light emission from Earth. It will be located in front of the UV transparent window in the Zvezda Russian module in the ISS, looking at Earth in nadir position.
October 2019 - September 2021
This image of the Chapman Glacier, located on Ellesmere Island in Canada, was taken by ASTER. Formed by the merger of several smaller glaciers, rocky debris on top of the glacier clearly marks the edge of each glacier.
The Hyperspectral Imager Suite (HISUI) is a next-generation spaceborne hyperspectral Earth imaging system. The objective of HISUI onboard the International Space Station (ISS) is to obtain the data necessary to begin a full-scale practical application development for hyperspectral remote sensing through manufacturing, and the inflight performance verification of a hyperspectral imager onboard ISS.
Upcoming missions include:
- Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO)
- Global navigation satellite systems reflectometry, radio occultation and scatterometry (GEROS)
- Terminator Experiment
- Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT)
- Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE)
To learn more about the upcoming missions, visit our Earth Science & Remote Sensing Missions on ISS