A Spacecraft's Journey to the Space Station

A Spacecraft's Journey to the Space Station

On December 5, 2018, NASA launched a 6,000-pound care package to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft orbited Earth until it reached the station three days later. As the oversized parcel headed toward the orbiting laboratory, it traveled over beautiful Earth landscapes—from scenic snowscapes to desolate deserts.

These images, taken by astronaut Alex Gerst, show the Dragon capsule orbiting Earth on December 8, 2018.

The first image shows the spacecraft passing over the remote and pristine Ukok Plateau, located in the Altai Mountains of southwestern Siberia, Russia. Four countries come together in this region: Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. The plateau, which is a UNSECO World Heritage Site, is home to the endangered snow leopard.

The second image shows the capsule passing over Manifa, Saudi Arabia. Manifa is home to one of the world’s biggest oil fields, a part of which is visible in the upper left of the photo. These manmade islands—each the size of 10 soccer fields— serve as “onshore” drill sites above offshore oil fields. The emerald waters also house more than 85 species of fish and 50 species of coral.

The third image shows the SpaceX vehicle over the Emi Koussi volcano in northern Chad (upper left of the photo). The volcano is the highest summit of the Sahara, standing at 3,414 meters (2 miles) above sea level. Its dark volcanic rocks stand out against the surrounding tan and light brown sandstone to the south and east.

The cargo carrier arrived at the space station on the morning of December 8; the ISS was over the Pacific Ocean north of Papua New Guinea at the time. Gerst reeled it in with the space station’s robotic arm. While the package included supplies, it also carried several science experiments—including a first-of-its-kind laser instrument called the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, or GEDI.

GEDI, pronounced like “Jedi” of Star Wars fame, will be the first spaceborne laser instrument to measure the structure of Earth’s forests in high resolution and three dimensions. The measurements will help scientists understand how much carbon is stored in the world’s forests and how they may change as carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere rise. GEDI will make these measurements for two years while perched on the outside of the space station.

The empty SpaceX Dragon capsule will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California in January 2019.

ISS Photographs by Alex Gerst, European Space Agency/NASA. Story by Kasha Patel.

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