SERVIR’s Earth observing camera on International Space Station--an impressive run

Published: Nov 03 2014

Every 24 hours, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth 16 times, providing a view of much of our planet's populated area. A team from a NASA/USAID project called SERVIR put that vantage point to good use in 2013 and 2014 with a special camera. Their ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System (ISERV) test bed camera is nearing the end of its operations, and what a ride it’s been!

ISERV was primarily intended to help scientists gain valuable information about how a more capable future instrument might operate, but it accomplished much more. It acquired over 175,000 images of Earth, including critical disaster photos, many of which were made available to the International Disasters Charter (IDC) for use in disaster response and assessment.

"We're very pleased that ISERV has helped the space station lend support to countries around the world, making the ISS even more of an international asset," says SERVIR Project Director Dan Irwin. "There is great demand for these images. Many different international agencies and organizations have requested them and found them valuable."

ISERV image of San Quintín glacier
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Built primarily from commercial off-the-shelf components, and consisting of a commercial camera, telescope, and pointing system, ISERV was installed in the ISS's Destiny laboratory on 15 January 2013, positioned to look through the module's Earth-facing window. Acting on commands from the ground, ISERV photographed specific areas of the Earth's surface as the space station passed over them.

 Image of Calgary Flood 2013

For example, ISERV captured 24 images of the flooding in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on June 22-24, 2013. The images show floodwaters from the Bow and Elbow Rivers inundating downtown Calgary. The floodwaters devastated much of southern Alberta and forced the evacuation of over 100,000 citizens in Calgary and nearby towns. Three people died in the swirling, murky waters, which also caused millions of dollars' worth of damage June 22 and in the days following. The ISERV team sent the images to Environment Canada's Ken Korporal, who widely distributed them to federal departments including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and to the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS) Emergency Geomatics Service at Natural Resources Canada.

"The space station imagery captured over Calgary is a great example of the importance of high-resolution optical images for flood mapping in urban environments, weather permitting," said Alice Deschamps, alternate lead for the Emergency Geomatics Service (EGS), Earth Observation and Geosolutions Division, Canada Centre for Remote Sensing at Natural Resources Canada. "It is a complementary source of information to the large area Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)-based flood mapping products generated by EGS. Our team will use the photos for validation purposes as we move forward with improving our SAR flood mapping algorithms."

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted the images and story to his 1 million+ Twitter followers. NASA Earth Observatory, The Calgary Herald, The Huffington Post, and several other media sources picked up the story.

Also in June 2013, ISERV snapped images of the devastation in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, where the early onset of monsoon rains swept away entire villages. Floodwaters and associated landslides killed over 1000 people and wiped out thousands of homes, roads, and bridges in Uttarakhand. Many of the people affected were on pilgrimages to holy sites in the region and were caught unaware. Some of the ISERV images showed floodwaters from the swollen Mandakini River inundating the village of Tilwara.  The ISERV imagery was made available for the IDC, which was activated in response to the flooding disaster. The International Charter helps to coordinate space agencies around the world that participate voluntarily to help mitigate the effects of disasters by providing data, imagery, and other space technology solutions.

On June 27, 2013, ISERV captured images of Moore, Oklahoma, showing the path of the May 20th tornado there. The tornado's path can be seen in the image as a line of scouring, where the tornado blew away buildings, trees, etc, and left a swath of red soil exposed. NASA's Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center (SPoRT) program monitored regional recovery from that tornado using ISERV along with SPoRT’s new Web Mapping Service (WMS) for data and product dissemination to the community. See for more information.

ISERV images of the Royal Gorge in Colorado showed the Arkansas River passing through the burn scar of the June 11-16 fire there. NASA Earth Observatory featured one of these photos as their “Image of the Day” on July 16.

Typhoon Haiyan's death toll in the Philippines reached nearly 4000, with an estimated 4 million people displaced. The monster storm hit Basey, a municipality in the province of Samar, Philippines, on the morning of November 18, 2013. Images from ISERV revealed the potential storm surge near Basey, collecting 27 images passing from Bagatao Island to Basey. The images were made available for the International Disaster Charter and distributed to the US Geological Survey as part of the IDC request.

ISERV accomplishments in 2014 included taking part in the international search effort for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. ISERV acquired approximately 6500 images for this purpose during April 2014. Although the aircraft has not yet been found, the SERVIR team was honored to be participating in this global effort.

On May 4, 2014, the ISERV team captured photos of the destruction caused by an EF-4 tornado in Louisville, Mississippi that hit on April 28, 2014. The images show the region before (Landsat) and after (ISERV) the tornado. The National Weather Service Jackson, MS office publicized the ISERV imagery via Twitter.

ISERV image of tornado track from Louisville, Mississippi tornado

SERVIR Applied Sciences Team member Pietro Ceccato used ISERV data to map ecosystems, urban areas, roads and water bodies that favor the reproduction of mosquitoes, which transmit malaria and dengue in Zanzibar.  His team is currently testing different classification methodologies to automatically map the ISERV data.  In August 2014, he went to Zanzibar to validate the classification with field measurements.  The final map will be provided to the President’s Malaria Initiative and Malaria Control Program in Zanzibar to link with malaria cases in order to target control measures to eradicate malaria in Zanzibar.

The list of critical image acquisitions continues, and you can read more about ISERV’s successes at the links provided in the notes at the end of the story.

To accomplish all this, the ISERV team has worked together to overcome challenges and continuously improve their instrument's capabilities. For example several months ago, after a pointing system failure, they built replacement hardware and justified its quick delivery to the ISS such that ISERV was restored to full function in under 6 months.

And the team developed an online image viewer that went live in June 2014, streamlining access to their camera’s valuable images. With the viewer, you can easily view and download a specific photo or multiple ISERV scenes from a collection of over 11,000 images. A new auto-georeferencing capability developed by the ISERV team allows for imagery to be posted online much more quickly. All processed ISERV images will be available by the end of 2015, when processing operations end.

ISERV has proven the value of an Earth observing camera on the ISS.


ISERV ends operations on January 6, 2015, and will be removed from the WORF. No more images are scheduled to be collected after that time. However, ISERV will remain onboard ISS in storage through early March 2015 and may be reinstalled inside the WORF to collect disaster relief imagery if needed.

Image processing will continue through the end of FY 2015 or until all of the collected images have been processed, whichever comes first. Images will be added to the ISERV viewer as they are processed. The ISERV images will be transitioned to NASA’s Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC) once operations and processing are complete. LP DAAC is one of several discipline-specific data centers within the NASA Earth Observing System (EOS) Data and Information System (EOSDIS). LP DAAC processes, archives, and distributes land data and products derived from the EOS sensors.

Georeferencing is the process by which points in an image can be associated with their position on a geographic map. Using ISS orbit and position data, along with the acquisition time information contained within each image, the ISERV ground operations team devised the automated image georeferencing routine. This routine provides very good positional accuracy and operates up to 20X faster than manual processing.

For more information about ISERV:

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