You might wonder how a laboratory 250 miles above Earth could help us study and observe our home planet, but the space station actually gives us a unique view of the blue marble we call home.
The space station is part of a fleet of Earth remote-sensing platforms to develop a scientific understanding of Earth’s systems and its response to natural or human-induced changes and to improve prediction of climate, weather and natural hazards. Unlike automated remote-sensing platforms, the space station has a human crew, a low-orbit altitude and orbital parameters that provide variable views and lighting. Crew members have the ability to collect unscheduled data of an unfolding event, like severe weather, using handheld digital cameras.
The Cupola, seen above, is one of the many ways astronauts aboard the space station are able to observe the Earth. This panoramic control tower allows crew members to view and guide operations outside the station, like the station’s robotic arm.
The space station also has an inclined, sun-asynchronous orbit, which means that it travels over 90% of the inhabited surface of the Earth, and allows for the station to pass over ground locations at different times of the day and night. This perspective is different and complimentary to other orbiting satellites.
The space station is also home to a few Earth-observing instruments, including:
The ISS-RapidScat monitors ocean winds for climate research, weather prediction and hurricane science. This vantage point gives scientists the first near-global direct observations of how ocean winds can vary over the course of the day, while adding extra eyes in the tropics and mid-latitudes to track the formation and movement of tropical cyclones.
CATS (Cloud-Aerosol Transport System) is a laser instrument that measures clouds and airborne particles such as pollution, mineral dust and smoke. Improving cloud data allows scientists to create more accurate climate models, which in turn, will improve air quality forecasts and health risk alerts.
Want to observe the Earth from a similar vantage point? You can thanks to our High Definition Earth-Viewing System (HDEV). This experiment is mounted on the exterior of the space station and includes several commercial HD video cameras aimed at the Earth.