Space Photo Album Growing

Earth In Focus

Astronauts have captured a world of information in photographs taken from space.

Luckily, that world is Earth.

And even better, thousands of those images from NASA are now available to the public.

Astronaut and AAPG member James F. Reilly II will discuss NASA's space photography resource at the annual meeting this month in his presentation, "Want a Shot? We Can Get It! Astronaut Photographs as Research and Training Tools."

William R. Muehlberger of the University of Texas-Austin calls the space image collection "a fantastic resource" for instruction.

"You can use them in freshman classes to graduate research," he said.

Muehlberger, who has retired from day-to-day teaching, is the Peter T. Flawn Centennial Chair in Geology (Emeritus) at UT-Austin, and he will serve as chair for the Monday morning technical session titled "NASA: Human Exploration of Earth, Moon and Mars," which includes Reilly's presentation.

Astronauts have collaborated with researchers to evaluate aspects of image acquisition, obtaining the highest quality and most appropriate photographs for later use, according to Reilly.

Crews on the International Space Station are on-orbit full time and can expand the image database, he added. Requests for images are compiled daily and uplinked to the station.

And anyone can benefit from their views. Post-mission images are available on Web sites, including http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov and http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov.

Former astronaut and lunar explorer Harrison Schmitt, another AAPG member, who happened to walk on the moon as a member of the Apollo 17 mission, also will participate in the session, discussing "Lunar Field Geology: Past and Future."

Among other topics, Schmitt will address the possibility of future, privately financed lunar expeditions.

Getting Grounded in Geology

In discussing the importance of the space photo resource, Muehlberger speaks from a long history of experience with NASA and the astronaut program.

"I organized the second field trip the astronauts ever took, out to West Texas," Muehlberger said. "We taught them geological methods, like how to make maps.

"I guess because NASA knew me, they asked me to get involved with Skylab," he added. "My subject was global tectonics."

Image Caption

Photos courtesy of NASA

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Astronauts have captured a world of information in photographs taken from space.

Luckily, that world is Earth.

And even better, thousands of those images from NASA are now available to the public.

Astronaut and AAPG member James F. Reilly II will discuss NASA's space photography resource at the annual meeting this month in his presentation, "Want a Shot? We Can Get It! Astronaut Photographs as Research and Training Tools."

William R. Muehlberger of the University of Texas-Austin calls the space image collection "a fantastic resource" for instruction.

"You can use them in freshman classes to graduate research," he said.

Muehlberger, who has retired from day-to-day teaching, is the Peter T. Flawn Centennial Chair in Geology (Emeritus) at UT-Austin, and he will serve as chair for the Monday morning technical session titled "NASA: Human Exploration of Earth, Moon and Mars," which includes Reilly's presentation.

Astronauts have collaborated with researchers to evaluate aspects of image acquisition, obtaining the highest quality and most appropriate photographs for later use, according to Reilly.

Crews on the International Space Station are on-orbit full time and can expand the image database, he added. Requests for images are compiled daily and uplinked to the station.

And anyone can benefit from their views. Post-mission images are available on Web sites, including http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov and http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov.

Former astronaut and lunar explorer Harrison Schmitt, another AAPG member, who happened to walk on the moon as a member of the Apollo 17 mission, also will participate in the session, discussing "Lunar Field Geology: Past and Future."

Among other topics, Schmitt will address the possibility of future, privately financed lunar expeditions.

Getting Grounded in Geology

In discussing the importance of the space photo resource, Muehlberger speaks from a long history of experience with NASA and the astronaut program.

"I organized the second field trip the astronauts ever took, out to West Texas," Muehlberger said. "We taught them geological methods, like how to make maps.

"I guess because NASA knew me, they asked me to get involved with Skylab," he added. "My subject was global tectonics."

Astronauts needed a grounding in geology concepts and skills to help them interpret what they were seeing from space, Muehlberger explained.

"Most of them — especially the shuttle astronauts — had never had a course in geology and here they were, looking at the earth," he said. "Half of them had been military pilots and had flown all over the world, and had never known what they were looking at except geography that they had to get across."

In the session, Muehlberger will present a paper of his own, "Global Tectonics as Viewed from Manned Spacecraft."

Transform faults that appear as straight lines on maps show subtle to dramatic kinks when seen from orbit, he said, adding that the surface boundary between the Indian Plate and the overriding Asian Plate at the base of the Himalayas can be observed easily.

Another interesting observation from orbit is that each continent has its own color, Muehlberger said, and astronauts can learn to quickly identify the landmass below based on its unique coloration.

"These pictures are in true color," he said, "so you're seeing what your eyes would have seen if you had been up there looking down."

Photographs taken by the astronauts can give geologists a unique perspective on familiar terrestrial features, Muehlberger noted.

"One thing these pictures do for me and others that I've shown them to is to give you a sense of scale," he said. "The size, how big things are, is item one.

"A place I've used a lot in my talks is the Amazon region, where there's a huge project to cut down the forest and move people in there to grow their own food," he said. "This is an area of 80,000 square miles — about two-thirds the size of France."

NASA has captured more than 400,000 images from space, Muehlberger said.

"Since we have photos from Skylab to now, almost 40 years, you can compare these pictures," he said. "The Yellow River has really had amazing changes over the years."

Cynthia Evans of NASA's Earth & Imaging Sciences Lab will describe rapid transformation of the river's delta in her presentation, "Changes in the Yellow River Delta, 1989-2000."

Astronauts on the Space Shuttle have documented dramatic changes in the tip of the delta, she noted. From 1989-2000, several hundred square kilometers accreted and eroded from the coast.

Using the Yellow River Delta as an example, Evans will discuss remote sensing and analysis of space images as efficient strategies for examining regional changes.

What Works Here Works There

Large modern fluvial fans (LMFF) and their characteristics will be the subject of "Global Geomorphic Survey of Large Modern Fans: Distribution and Exploration Implications," presented by M. Justin Wilkinson of Lockheed Martin Space Operations.

Interpretation of astronaut photographs have identified 96 LMFF with radii over 100 kilometers, present on all continents except Antarctica, according to Wilkinson.

Understanding the nature and distribution of large modern fans can help direct exploration for similar features in past landscapes, he said.

Also in the morning session, Patricia W. Dickerson will present a paper on "Field and Remote Sensing Training for Human Exploration of the Planets." Dickerson is a scientist for Lockheed Martin at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In 1999, a group of 31 astronauts and astronaut candidates received training in geophysical exploration methods in New Mexico, Dickerson said.

"The impetus for creating that exercise was at the time we were resolutely planning to explore Mars or go back to the moon," she said. "The objective was to train people in geophysical methods, which would apply no matter where they were."

The training exercise also assisted in the delineation of subsurface faults around Taos, part of an ongoing hydrogeologic assessment of the Taos Valley by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

Dickerson said New Mexico needed to gather real data to understand what was controlling ground water in the Taos area.

The astronaut group conducted gravity traverses, acquiring about 10 miles of data and profiling a buried fault.

"I was hoping we could do a companion seismic reflection line," she recalled, "but the mobilization and de-mob problems were so ponderous that it would have taken all of geologic time to get the data."

Paying For Itself

Each class of astronaut candidates receives training in Earth processes. Dickerson said geology instructors "take them around the rift and show them examples of faults along the Sangre de Cristo."

Training gives the astronauts an awareness of geological sampling, descriptive techniques, geophysical methods and other geoscience skills, she continued. Future training could include seismic profiling, magnetic surveying and geochemical methods.

"In many ways it's similar to what we do in petroleum exploration," she said, adding that before these duties she had nine years at Gulf research and a couple of years in Exxon.

"If we're going to have people capable of exploring the surface of any planet, including this one, we're going to have to grow that awareness somehow."

Today, the future path of astronaut training is difficult to predict because of the current "de-emphasis on planetary exploration," according to Dickerson.

"What I can foresee," she said, "and what I hope to do, is set up a flexibly structured field training program in cooperation with various university people."

Muehlberger thinks the manned space program has paid for itself many times over in spin-off developments, such as the miniaturization of computers and electronic components for spacecraft.

Another example of a derived benefit began with the carbon analysis of moon soil, he said. NASA sent samples of moon soil to several laboratories for testing, to determine how much carbon might exist on the moon.

The test results differed dramatically, Muehlberger said.

Those results had nothing to do with the moon surface, but reflected the level of cleanliness of the labs, he explained.

The cleaner the lab, the less carbon in the results.

"We learned how to clean up the labs and other places because of that," he commented. "Now hospital rooms are cleaner than they were before, all because we wanted to know how much carbon there is on the moon."

Astronauts in orbit have helped scientists understand many earth processes, including cloud rings caused by cold water rising from the bottom of the ocean, Muehlberger continued.

"Putting an intelligent person up there who has good training and background, God knows what you're going to learn.

"There are a whole bunch of things first spotted by the astronauts," he said.

But Muehlberger feels pessimistic about the near-term future of manned space exploration. He cited an overrun in spending for the International Space Station, federal budget cuts and government indifference.

"At the moment I don't see any hope," he said. "All I see for the next decade is unmanned exploration."

For now, researchers and educators can draw on the extensive collection of images acquired by NASA. As Muehlberger noted, things look different from outer space.

"The classic example is over there at the end of the Red Sea, the so-called Afar triangle," Muehlberger said.

"It looks so simple when you see it drawn up. When you look at it in reality, you realize, 'The only thing simple in here is my mind.'"

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