Shuttle Views the Earth: Oceans from Space

Compiled by
Pat Jones and Gordon Wells

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Looking at Gemini photographs of the Gulf of Mexico, oceanographers realized that color photographs could be used to identify the spawning grounds and migration habits of the Gulf shrimp. This information was rapidly passed on to the fishing fleet. As a result of this discovery in August 1966, oceanographers have been involved in briefing the crews for every subsequent U.S. manned spaceflight.

Exciting results were returned by the Apollo and Skylab programs. Anticipating an increased spaceflight rate with the advent of the shuttle program, NASA assigned a small group of Earth scientists to the Space Shuttle Earth Observations Project (SSEOP) to train each shuttle crew and instruct them on the latest advances in various disciplines. Two oceanographers have worked with this team throughout the shuttle program.

Important oceanographic discoveries were made right from the start. On STS-1, the first test flight of Columbia in 1981, John Young and Robert Crippen photographed spiral eddies in the Gulf of Oman. At the time, this was thought to be an isolated example, but the very next mission revealed another such eddy in the Caribbean, which raised questions as to how widespread these features might be in the world's oceans.

Astronauts became fascinated with how much they could observe in the oceans that cover more than 70% of the surface of planet Earth. STS-8 photographs provided the first indication that spiral eddies might be interconnected with pictures of a field of spiral eddies throughout the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean. Most intriguing was the fact that, like the circular systems of cyclones and hurricanes, spirals in the southern hemisphere appeared to rotate in the opposite direction from those seen in the northern hemisphere.

In May 1984, a change in the vehicle assigned to STS-17 (which was to become 41-G), from Columbia to Challenger, meant, because of slight differences in the onboard configuration, that an extra seat became available. No mission had carried a seven-member crew, but the mission, with its high-inclination (57) orbit, was ideal for ocean viewing, and oceanographer Paul Scully-Power was assigned to fly. His observations from that mission in October 1984 have contributed a wealth of new information to our understanding of ocean dynamics and have enabled subsequent crews to add to our knowledge. A sampling of the shuttle views of the oceans is provided in this slide set.

Pat Jones
June 1987


Our thanks to: Paul La Violette, oceanographer, Naval Ocean Research and Development Activity, Bay St Louis, Mississippi; Harold Moffitt, National Space Technology Laboratory, Bay St Louis, Mississippi; Peter Mouginis-Mark, Planetary Geoscience Division, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the Ocean Science Adviser, Astronaut Office, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas; Robert E. Stevenson, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, California; and Paul Scully-Power, oceanographer-astronaut, for encouragement with this project and assistance in the selection of material.

Slide #4 SIR-A radar image provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Slide #15 NOAA-9 AVHRR image and interpretation supplied by Paul La Violette, Naval Research and Development Activity, NSTL, Bay St Louis. Mississippi.

Slide #23 Nimbus 7 Coastal Zone Scanner color image provided by NOAA/NESDIS.

Slide #27 NOAA-8 AVHRR image processed at Lunar and Planetary Institute by Sharon Allen, Mark Conlon, Kin Leung, and Gordon Wells.

Slide #28 SEASAT SAR image and interpretation provided by Peter Mouginis-Mark and Lisa Gaddis, Planetary Geoscience Division, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics, University of Hawaii, Honolu1u, Hawaii.

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