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