Measuring Water Depth from the International Space Station

Measuring Water Depth from the International Space Station

Looking out the window of the International Space Station, astronauts often take the time to admire and photograph tropical islands and coral reefs. From an altitude of 400 km and with only a digital camera as a tool, it seems impossible to make detailed measurements of the depth of underwater features. However, a new technique developed by NOAA scientists has done just that—plotted the depths of lagoon features at Pearl and Hermes Reef, northwest Hawaii, using digital astronaut photography from the International Space Station (ISS).

Measuring water depth is an important step in mapping coral reef environments. Even though digital cameras are designed to visually approximate film photographs, the information they collect is similar to the bands of different wavelengths of light collected by multispectral instruments on satellites. NOAA scientists developed an algorithm that could estimate bathymetry from the blue and green bands in IKONOS satellite data. After calibrating the astronaut photography to the signal in the IKONOS data, the same algorithm could be successfully used with the blue and green channels in the astronaut photography. An accuracy assessment of the bathymetry map shows good correspondence between reference data, IKONOS, and ISS data.

Analysis of the Pearl and Hermes imagery was completed by Rick Stumpf and Kris Holderied at the NOAA National Ocean Service. NOAA NOS’s most recent coral reef mapping activities have focused on producing benthic habitat maps of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. NOAA has primary responsibility for mapping activities in U.S.-Flag waters under the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force’s Mapping Implementation Plan. Partnership with Julie Robinson, Earth Observations Laboratory (Lockheed Martin), Johnson Space Center, has been facilitated by NASA support for Coral Reef Remote Sensing projects and collaborations.

Astronaut photographs ISS005-E-13929 was taken with a Kodak DCS760 digital camera equipped with an 400 mm lens and provided the Earth Observations Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Astronaut photography of coral reef environments is one of the science objectives of the Crew Earth Observations project. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.

References & Resources

  • Stumpf, R. P., K. Holderied, J. A. Robinson, G. Feldman, N. Kuring. Mapping water depths in clear water from space. Coastal Zone 03, Baltimore, Maryland, 13-17 July 2003.
  • Stumpf, R.P. K. Holderied, and M. Sinclair. 2003b. Determination of water depth with high-resolution satellite imagery over variable bottom types. Limnology and Oceanography 48(1, part 2):547-556.