This year, wildfires during the summer season were particularly brutal. The average fire size in August was higher than it has been in more than a decade, and as we exit September, a total of 48,258 fires in 2012 have burned 8.8 million acres. The International Space Station Agricultural Camera (ISSAC) has aided in the disaster response to these events by capturing images of the wildfires from space.
ISSAC is a the ISS National Lab-sponsored imaging system aboard the space station, set up after ten years of development by students and faculty at the University of North Dakota. Among other uses, images from ISSAC support the International Disaster Charter, a response system committed to minimizing human and property losses from natural disasters. These images help people across the world survive and recover from destructive natural disasters.
During September, ISSAC captured images of the Sawtooth fire in Montana, the Wesley fire in Idaho, the Oil Creek fire in Wyoming and the Deep Creek fire in North Dakota, among others. Some of these fires originated from lightning strikes, and many burned for weeks—with single wildfires burning over ten thousand acres of land. Images of the affected regions from before and after the fires help determine not only the areas and extent of destruction, but also land characteristics important to reestablishing agricultural use of the region.
The achievements of Space Imaging over the past decade
Interestingly, while its role in disaster response is invaluable, ISSAC’s primary mission today is to improve U.S. agricultural practices. ISSAC focuses on the northern Great Plains region of the U.S., and its use in monitoring crops and livestock has produced valuable information regarding crop yield and land use. For example, information from long-term imaging can be used to help farmers and ranchers more effectively use fertilizer, reduce chemical use in agriculture (thereby reducing negative environmental effects), and better understand the livestock carrying capacity in rangelands.
ISSAC’s images not only capture visible land characteristics over time; they also determine other features of the land, such as the nitrogen concentration in plants, which can affect crop growth. Moreover, ISSAC is uniquely capable of capturing images of the Earth even in conditions of cloud cover, which has made it a valuable asset for increasing production and efficiency in agricultural practices. Finally, despite its focus on agriculture, astronauts and researchers use ISSAC for both disaster response and for studying other processes around the globe; for example, the melting of glaciers, such as those that caused a Russian avalanche in 2002.
Benefits of Imaging From the Space Station
The space station is uniquely capable of providing informative images because of various differences from traditional satellites. Other satellites for imaging follow a “sun-synchronous” orbit—meaning they pass over the same part of the Earth at the same time every day. This is a disadvantage because satellites are therefore only capable of capturing images of a particular region under the same lighting conditions every time. The space station’s orbit is not sun-synchronous, so it can take pictures of the same regions at different times of day, and different lighting conditions are often necessary for gaining detailed information.
Moreover, astronauts can modify, update and repair imaging systems aboard the space station much more easily than can be done with traditional satellites (often these changes would even be impossible with satellites). Astronauts can also respond in real time to adjust use of imaging systems to respond to events like natural disasters. Because of this, imaging from the space station is in many ways superior to traditional Earth observation approaches—and improvements to the space station will continue to increase the usefulness of these observations, providing even more benefits to people on Earth.