Why 4 Million Human Photos From Space Matter For Earth Day

Since the first United States astronaut (Al Shepard) snagged a photo of Earth in May 1961, people in space have delivered four million images to our planet, NASA says.

These few hundred people provide a valuable perspective to the rest of the seven billion of us on Earth, who are dealing with impacts of global warming ranging from wildfires, to flooding, to extreme weather events affecting agriculture and infrastructure.

For Earth Day, which we celebrate today (April 22), the resonance of this photography is mapping how our planet has changed over the decades. “The Toshka Lakes and Lake Nasser in Egypt, for example, have been photographed on a regular basis from the station over the past 20 years,” the agency said in their statement, which focuses on International Space Station photography.

“Water levels in these lakes,” NASA continued of the Egyptian lakes, “change dramatically on a month-to-month basis, constantly affecting agriculture in the region.” The agency but noted there are wider questions the images from above may help to address. This includes charting their volume over time, and the amount of water available to local residents who depend upon that water.

To be sure, satellite imagery of Earth is another tool upon which we depend. These images are constant, automated and are used regularly for weather forecasts and climatic models. While astronauts are more itinerant, however, they provide a more adaptive perspective to what is going on below them.

Professional astronauts “use different lenses to take photos with different fields of view – from close up to wide shots,” Andrea Wenzel, a geoscientist for NASA’s Earth science and remote sensing unit, said in the same statement. “The Cupola on the bottom of the space station allows for a panoramic view straight down, or the crew member can elect to photograph an image that includes the horizon.”

In 2020, for example, astronauts were tasked with taking pictures of flooding in Columbia to assist first responders with flood maps. This had a profound local effect, Wenzel said. “They launched an operation to rescue the inhabitants of local villages who were stuck in place due to rising water,” Wenzel said of the photos.

While NASA didn’t talk about space tourists or commercial astronauts in its release, we can imagine that the growing flight numbers of non-professionals can only add to the database of Earth imagery. Notable examples would include the high-orbiting Inspiration4, which circled Earth with four private individuals for three days in 2021, along with Axiom Space that just ran its first commercial mission to the space station this month.

While these nonprofessional flights run the gamut in terms of responsibilities — some are there for the view, while others have a research agenda in mind — as long as the photos are shared and available, these could also add to researchers’ capabilities on Earth to track our fast-changing planet from space.


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