Published online 5 December 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.320

News: Briefing

A timeline of Earth observation

People have always tried to look at our planet in new and different ways, and through the years they've invented a number of methods with which to do so. Here's a look at some of the notable moments in the history of Earth monitoring.

1840s: Cameras attached to balloons provide the first-ever aerial photography, with kites following soon after.

1903: Photos taken from carrier pigeons become the latest fad after a German engineer designs a small camera to strap on to the birds.

First and Second World Wars: British and German forces use aerial imagery to plan their attacks, reinforcing the importance of views from above.

1935: The Explorer II balloon takes pictures from more than 20 kilometres high, in which the curvature of Earth is visible.

1946: A V-2 rocket launched from White Sands, New Mexico, snaps a photo and returns to Earth with the first picture taken from space.

The first photo taken from space.White Sands /APL

1957: Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, is launched by the Soviet Union. It doesn’t include a camera.

1960: The first US meteorological satellite, TIROS 1 (Television and Infrared Observation Satellite), is launched, sending back the first image of cloud patterns over the disk of Earth.

1960s: During the US Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, astronauts photograph many of Earth's features from space, including the iconic Earthrise as seen from the Moon.

The iconic Earthrise as seen from the Moon.Manned Spacecraft Center/ NASA

1972: NASA launches the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, ERTS-1, later renamed Landsat. It is the first in a long-running series of multi-spectral remote-imaging spacecraft.

1974: NASA launches the Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, the first spacecraft to observe Earth from geosynchronous orbit and the forerunner of today’s GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) series, leading to improved data for weather forecasters.

1978: The Nimbus-7 satellite launches carrying the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer, which eventually confirms the existence of the Antarctic ozone hole, leading to international restrictions on the use of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals.

1978: Seasat, the first Earth-observing satellite designed specifically to study the oceans, is launched.

The view from on high.NASA

Early 1980s: The fledgling space shuttle programme sends back many more photographs taken by astronauts from orbit.

1991: The European Space Agency launches its first Earth-observing satellite, ERS-1.

1992: TOPEX/Poseidon is launched, a joint US-France venture to monitor sea level and seasonal variations in oceanic circulation. It confirms a global rise in sea level, pegged to rising global temperatures.

Poseidon spies on sea levels.NASA

2003: International governments launch the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a worldwide network meant to knit together the international Earth-monitoring capabilities.

2007: More than 50 Earth-observation satellites are now in orbit. 

See the Earth monitoring special.

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