Say Cheese, Andes!

Susan Runco is an oceanographer at the Johnson Space Center.

She’s part of a team of Earth scientists who’ve trained astronauts to take pictures from space.

Susan Runco: I just tell people that when the photography does come back, it’s sort of like a Christmas present each time. You feel like you’re excited when the imagery comes back and then you feel like you’re going around the world with them as you look at the photography and see what they’ve seen.

Astronauts have been asked to keep an eye out for coral reefs and other features visible from space that scientists are currently studying. In the 1990s, one scientist solved an Amazon mystery with shuttle photographs. He found that dust from the Andes mountains carries nutrients to the rainforest.

Space shuttle astronauts helped by taking pictures of dust-clouds — but the project was first inspired by spontaneous pictures.

Susan Runco: Initially they were taking pictures of the Andes because it’s such a striking area … picture yourself coming across the Pacific. … which is a vast amount of water and you get to the South American coastline and it’s a very stark blue against a light brownish desert-looking color — besides, the mountain range is stupendous looking.

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Because of the Challenger accident and the ensuing investigations, few images taken by astronauts on Challenger Mission SS107 have been released to the public. Runco did mention one that was taken of a snowy village in Iran.

Although satellites orbit the earth continuously, sending a steady stream of pictures down to researchers on the ground, there are advantages to putting a human behind the camera, explains Dr. Runco. One advantage is the high-resolution of the photographs which can capture a lot of fine detail that satellites may not be able to resolve. But there’s another advantage.

“We like to think that the photography, since it is taken by a person, is like a smart camera taking it, and they can actually shoot through what we call cloud holes photography … if a satellite is just told to shoot that area then it may be a very cloudy scene, whereas the astronauts can change the lens length and get the right coverage where it could get in that cloud hole. We just look at it as having someone thinking behind the camera rather than just shooting,” says Runco.

Dr. Runco and her team also train the scientists. “We train the astronauts to make them earth smart, and give them a better idea of what they are looking at as they fly around the world.”

The cameras the astronauts use aren’t that much different from cameras that are commercially available — only a few modifications are made so that they can work in space. The cameras are larger than ordinary cameras — about the size of toasters — much like cameras you’d see in a portrait studio. That’s because they use larger, 70 mm film.

This is a partial view of the Kolka Glacier (center). (The photograph taken by Sergei Chernomorets on Sept. 22, 2001.) Source:jsc.nasa.gov

This is a partial view of the Kolka Glacier (center). (The photograph taken by Sergei Chernomorets on Sept. 22, 2001.) Source:jsc.nasa.gov

On September 20, 2002, a glacier hanging on the slope of Mount Kazbek in Russia collapsed and formed a landslide. The avalanche of ice and debris buried several small villages and killed dozens of people. According to a NASA press release dated November 14, 2002, “Glacial debris dammed rivers and formed several lakes. One of these lakes flooded a village, and others are threatening to burst their new banks and form debris flows downstream.”

Shuttle astronauts photographed the glacier about a month before it collapsed. Then about a month after the collapse, shuttle crewmembers made a three dimensional image of the aftermath. According to the press release, ” ‘The (Oct. 19) image gives us a rare opportunity to try and estimate the volume of the initial glacier collapse,” said [Sergei] Chernomorets.'” Russian scientists continue to use astronaut photos to try to understand the initial glacier collapse and to monitor the area, in case any of the newly formed lakes in the region “burst their new banks and form debris flows downstream.”

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