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Celebrating the Earth (Off the Earth!)

Celebrating the Earth (Off the Earth!)

To find the perfect perch for Earth observation research, just look up – about 240 miles up. The International Space Station serves as an optimal platform for studying our dynamic planet, where spectacular views support science.

With currently active instruments and facilities like High Definition Earth Viewing, Crew Earth Observations, Lightning Imaging Sensor, SAGE-III and Meteor, researchers on the ground are able to use the station’s unique (and useful!) vantage point to track Earth’s weather patterns, obtain images documenting changes on the planet’s surface, understand the origin of meteors falling towards Earth, and better understand the atmosphere.

The space station’s 90-minute orbit allows it to cover 90% of the Earth’s populated surfaces. That means we are able to study A LOT of that big blue marble.

Let’s talk a little about how the space station serves as a platform for Earth observation:


Each day, as the space station passes over regions of the Earth, crew members photograph the area below as a part of the Crew Earth Observations Facility investigation, one of the longest-running experiments on the orbiting laboratory. Crew members are able to photograph large-scale weather events like the recent Hurricane Harvey from the space station’s Cupola. These little science postcards from space can be used by researchers and the public to learn more about our home planet.

Want to see a picture of your hometown from space? Search for it in the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth (GAPE).


The High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment streams live video of Earth for online viewing. This investigation not only provides hours and hours of footage of the Earth below, but also demonstrates how the technology holds up against the harsh environment of space. High school students helped design some of the cameras’ components, through the High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program, and student teams perform most of the HDEV operation. (Whoa! Check out HUNCH and STEM on Station for more opportunities for student involvement!)

Useful for weather forecasting, hurricane monitoring, and observations of large-scale climate phenomena such as El Niño, RapidScat used radar pulses reflected off the ocean to measure wind speed and direction over the ocean.


RapidScat completed its successful two-year mission, outlasting its original decommission date before suffering a power loss. Although RapidScat is no longer transmitting data back to Earth, the station hosts many other Earth-observation tools the Cyclone Intensity Measurements from the ISS (CyMISS) an experiment that seeks to develop detailed information on tropical storm structure to better estimate storm intensity, which will help government agencies to better prepare communities for impending natural disasters; and the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a previously-flown lidar instrument which measured atmospheric profiles of aerosols and clouds to better understand their properties and interactions, as well as provided data useful to improving climate change models.


Learn more about RapidScat’s mission conclusion HERE! Take a look at CATS mission data HERE!

Watch more inspiring videos and learn about how we’re capturing the beauty of Earth HERE.


Crew members are able to photograph large-scale weather events like the recent Hurricane Harvey from the space station’s Cupola. These little science postcards from space can be used by researchers and the public to learn more about our home planet.

Plants in space!

Future long-duration missions into the solar system will require a fresh food supply to supplement crew diets, which means growing crops in space. Growing food in such a harsh environment also teaches us a little bit about growing in harsh environments here on Earth.

Here are a few plant-based investigations currently happening aboard the orbiting laboratory:


Veggie is a chamber on the space station that helps scientists grow, harvest and study different space crops. This experiment is called VEG-03D and they’ve been able to grow six rounds of crops so far.

SpaceX’s 13th Commercial Resupply vehicle carried many valuable items to the orbiting laboratory, including Plant Gravity Perception, an investigation that uses the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) to simulate gravity to help plants grow its roots downward, and shoots upwards. The shoots need to face upwards, towards the light, so they can absorb sunlight and nutrients. Without this, plants wouldn’t know which way to grow. Yikes!

Learn more about Plant Gravity Perception HERE!


The Advanced Plant Habitat is a large chamber that supports commercial and fundamental plant research for at least one year of continuous use. A great feature to this habitat is that the astronauts can view the plant’s progress through a window on the door.

Whether astronauts are taking pictures of the planet or growing crops in space, all science aboard the space station plants seeds for a better life on Earth. Biology investigations directly grow our knowledge of agricultural techniques for harsh environments and imagery from space can give us a clearer idea of our planet’s health and emerging weather patterns.


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