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We now present a gallery of exemplar photos, taken from representative Shuttle and other space missions. Some computer screens pair these images side-by-side but, small screens may display one above the other. Each one has a brief description.

Let's start with a sequence showing active and recent volcanoes on three continents. In the first pair, on the top is a vertical photo taken during STS-59 that shows a snow-covered island in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula (far east Siberia) that has a volcanic caldera at each end, both with a central stratocone. Below it is an oblique scene that traces a long plume emanating from the Kliuchevskoi volcano in that peninsula during an active eruption.

B/W vertical photograph of a snow-covered island in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, taken during the STS-59 mission.
Color oblique photograph of the Kliuchevskoi volcano in the Kamchatka Peninsula during eruption.

Mount Saint Helens, in southern Washington State, erupted catastrophically in 1980. Astronauts photographed it in 1994, with a Nikon 300 mm lens, during the STS-64 mission, clearly showing the persistent aprons of ash deposits, despite considerable reforestation, lobes of lahars (ash-mud flows), and the great gap where part of the mountain was blown away.

B/W photograph of Mt. St. Helens, taken during the STS-64 mission in 1994.

It is interesting to place this mountain in context with two other great stratovolcanoes in the Cascade Mountains of the western U.S. These two Shuttle views, one an oblique, false-color IR picture (looking northwest) and the second, a near vertical, natural-color shot, show Mount Saint Helens (MSH) to the west and Mounts Rainier and Adams to the east, all snow-capped. Indeed, MSH is the only volcano that is significantly offset from the main line of the Cascadian volcanic activity. Note the clear-cutting patterns in the forested countryside.

Oblique false color IR photograph of the Cascade Mountains, showing Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams.
Near vertical natural color photograph of the Cascade Mountains, showing Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams.

12-9: Both of the above photos have rather odd orientations. But the presence of the three great peaks allows one to tie the photos to a map atlas by the classic technique of triangulation. Try to do this. You will know you have succeeded when you find the name of the distinct large lake near Mt. St. Helens (volcano in the center in the top photo). ANSWER

A recent volcano, known as the Pic Tousside, in the Tibesti Mountains in the Sahara of Chad (Africa), is noteworthy because of the insect-like shape created by several basalt flows:

Color photograph of the Pic Tousside volcano, in the Tibesti Mountains in the Sahara of Chad, Africa.

Astronaut photography and geostationary satellites have depicted large areas of the global surface. Observe, on the top, a southwest-looking STS photo of the Great Lakes in the northern U.S. and adjacent Canada. Compare this with a mosaic made from Nimbus AVHRR, false-color images that cover all of these lakes (state and province boundaries are superimposed). Test yourself in identifying each of the Great Lakes.

Color photograph of Great Lakes, U.S. and Canada.
Nimbus AVHHR false color image of the Great Lakes, U.S. and Canada.

We view cities in context with their surroundings in STS pictures. Below, the top view is Tokyo Bay in Japan (STS-56). Tokyo is in the upper left, and Yokohama is in the lower left. On the right (east) side of the bay are built-up areas that include large landfills bounded by retainer walls, which hold ship docks. Compare Tokyo's visibility with the winter scene (STS-60) of Montreal in Quebec, Canada (bottom), in which cleared streets stand out against the snowscape, similar to a dusted fingerprint.

Color photograph of Tokyo Bay, Japan, taken during the STS-56 mission.
Color photograph showing a snowy scene of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, taken during the STS-60 mission.

Astronauts have taken some remarkable pictures from space in the dead of night. In one example, from the Shuttle, the collective lights of cities and towns around San Francisco Bay outline it in orange. The second, a mosaic that covers all of the U.S., highlights cities and towns as bright illuminated areas, imaged by the one of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. See if you can locate the region in which you live, using the pattern of lights from metropolitan areas near you, Can you tell what accounts for the numerous linear patterns developed over most of the U.S.? How many areas of concentrated light can you identify as urban centers?

Color photograph of San Francisco Bay at night, with the Bay outlined in orange lights from the various cities on its coast.

12-10: Where is San Francisco itself in this striking Shuttle night view? ANSWER

B/W DMPS image showing the relative brightness of the cities across the U.S.

12-11: If you live in a small to large city, see if you can locate it in the DMSP image. If you live in a more rural setting, try to find the nearest city(ies) to your residence. Many of the larger towns seem linked as beads in a rosary. Why? ANSWER

Finally, the Shuttle crews always look for terrestrial phenomena around, rather than on, the Earth. Here are two views, from STS-45 and STS-47, of the aurora borealis¾also known as the Northern Lights¾appearing as spectacular light bands, caused when electrons and other particles from the solar wind strike atoms in the outer atmosphere.

Two colorized views of the aurora borealis, taken during the STS-45 and STS-47 missions.

The Russian cosmonauts have also had a long-standing program for acquiring space photos. In recent years, they operated the Kosmos KVR-1000 camera on their MIR Space Station. Pictures using this camera, available commercially, can have spatial resolutions as high as 2 m (about 6.6 ft). An example of the sharpness achieved in such photos is this view of part of downtown Atlanta, Georgia:

B/W photograph of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, taken from the MIR Space Station.

The topics summarized in this section should, first, point to the unique role of trained humans in space and, second, underscore the value of hand-held photography. A third advantage of pictures from manned missions is their low cost and ready availability compared to those from automated observation satellites like Landsat, SPOT, and similar space imagery, that generate expensive and proprietary products. Fourth, their natural color and their obliquity make many hand-held pictures generally well-suited to educational use, providing easily understood views of the Earth from orbital altitudes. Finally, the photography stands as a record of long-term changes (going back to the 1960s) of the Earth's surface, whose appearance, as well as its physical structure are continuously changing, sometimes from minute-to-minute.

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Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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