Space Station Research: Observing Earth

Each month, we highlight a different research topic on the International Space Station. In April, our focus is how the space station provides a platform for studying the Earth.

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.

In late 2016, we will launch Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III). This experiment will measure ozone and other gases in the atmosphere to help scientists assess how the ozone layer is recovering.

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.

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Houston, We Have a Launch!

Today, three new crew members will launch to the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, along with Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, are scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:26 p.m. EDT. The three Expedition 47 crew members will travel in a Soyuz spacecraft, rendezvousing with the space station six hours after launch.

Traveling to the International Space Station is an exciting moment for any astronaut. But what if you we’re launching to orbit AND knew that you were going to break some awesome records while you were up there? This is exactly what’s happening for astronaut Jeff Williams.

This is a significant mission for Williams, as he will become the new American record holder for cumulative days in space (with 534) during his six months on orbit. The current record holder is astronaut Scott Kelly, who just wrapped up his one-year mission on March 1.

On June 4, Williams will take command of the station for Expedition 48. This will mark his third space station expedition…which is yet another record!

Want to Watch the Launch?

You can! Live coverage will begin at 4:30 p.m. EDT on NASA Television, with launch at 5:26 p.m.

Tune in again at 10:30 p.m. to watch as the Soyuz spacecraft docks to the space station’s Poisk module at 11:12 p.m.

Hatch opening coverage will begin at 12:30 a.m., with the crew being greeted around 12:55 a.m.

NASA Television: https://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Follow Williams on Social!

Astronaut Jeff Williams will be documenting his time on orbit, and you can follow along on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com