This image, captured on April 13, 2009, by NASA's Aqua satellite, indicates a high presence of fires and smoke in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Real time information like this is available on a daily basis, providing useful input for the scientists, researchers, and environmental and health ministries who use the regional monitoring system SERVIR to investigate impacts on the region's forests as well as monitor smoke plumes, which can lead to poor air quality and create human health issues. (NASA photo)

NASA's new space camera will help developing countries manage their environments

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Just in time for Earth Day Sunday, NASA in Huntsville announced plans this week to send a new telescopic camera to the International Space Station to give developing countries critical new environmental data.

Forest fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and landslides are just some of the natural catastrophes that change the landscapes and strain official resources in Central America, Africa and Asia.

ISERV is NASA's abbreviation for the new camera designed and built at Marshall Space Flight Center to record those changes. It will be installed this summer in the space station's Destiny module.

It's a new addition to SERVIR, an information gathering and sharing program named for the Spanish verb "to serve." SERVIR is a joint project of NASA and the United States Agency for International Development.

Once it's aboard the station, the camera will obtain near-real-time data, NASA says. It will be able to "see" 90 percent of the Earth's land mass and 95 percent of its populated areas, according to lead scientist Burgess Howell of Huntsville.

What can SERVIR do that a photo from a helicopter or airplane can't? To cite two examples, it can show officials the scope of a natural event and its effect on regional resources such as drinking water.

This is critical information in disasters that are too isolated or small to make it to the world's front pages. Because these events are limited in scope - even though they're devastating to the people affected - it can be hard to re-task a satellite to photograph them.

"Often, things that significantly impact local areas are things you would never read about in the New York Times or the Huntsville paper," Howell said. "They fly under the radar and can't get high enough up the priority chain, frequently, to task commercial satellites for these things."

The space station crosses the sky relatively quickly, too, and can thus deliver multiple images in a 24-hour period if conditions are right.

The new camera will be SERVIR's first exclusive space asset and officials want it to lead the way to improved instruments in the future. The system, which will launch to the station in July aboard a Japanese supply capsule, is based on a modified commercial telescope with special software.

"We got the authority to proceed at the end of February last year," Marshall project manager Susan Spencer said Thursday. "In 10 and one-half months, we got this hardware in house, modified, special parts built, everything tested and delivered down to (Johnson Space Center) to be shipped to Japan. That's almost unheard-of."

The NASA teams that manage the space station are glad to host the new experiment. If it's successful, and there's no reason to think it won't be, future cameras could be mounted on the outside of the station itself to provide even clearer images.

"The addition of ISERV will enhance the growing set of tools aboard the station to monitor Earth," said Julie Robinson, International Space Station program scientist at Johnson Space Center. "It reaffirms the station's commitment to helping solve global issues."