Space station crew keeping watch on Earth
By Amanda Barnett
(CNN) -- Smile. You may be mugging for a high-flying photographer aboard international space station Alpha.
The new crew of Alpha, U.S. commander Frank Culbertson, Russian pilot Mikhail Tyurin, and flight engineer Vladimir Dezhurov, is continuing a project that started with the Mercury astronauts back in the 1960's -- the Crew Earth Observations experiment.
In other words, they're taking pictures -- lots of them.
"Astronauts have been looking at Earth ever since we put windows into spacecraft," said Kamlesh Lulla, chief scientist for Earth Observations at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, snapped a view of the planet during his three orbits in Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.
Since then, thousands of pictures have been taken. The space shuttle crews have captured more than 250,000 images, according to the Johnson Space Center Imagery Services Web site.
And the space station offers a constant view of Earth. A high quality window was installed on the U.S.-built Destiny laboratory in February.
NASA has collected many of the pictures on a Web site called Earth From Space: Astronauts Views of the Home Planet.
The pictures include stunning views of the whole planet, including the famous Earthrise pictures taken by Apollo crews that orbited and landed on the moon.
Space shuttles and the space station orbit at about 220 miles, a great vantage point for documenting hurricanes, volcanoes and manmade destruction like the oil well fires set in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.
According to Lulla, the areas to be photographed are selected to give scientists insight into important Earth-related processes like receding lake levels.
For example, the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan has dropped from the fourth-largest to the eighth-largest inland body of water in the world because water has been diverted from the sea for irrigation. The sea is now two separate bodies of water, as seen in a picture taken during a space shuttle mission in August of 1997.
"Many of the astronauts who are trained to be pilots, once they see the Earth, they become very concerned about the health of our planet," said Lulla.
After reviewing thousands of pictures taken from space, Lulla himself remains optimistic.
"I'm not a doomsayer that will tell you the planet is going to collapse," he said. "The important thing to remember is that there are lots of signals the planet is sending us that we need to investigate."
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