Observing Earth has always been intrinsic to International Space Station operations, but like crew photography,  it did not begin as a formal or scientific exercise. Now ISS crews are requested to take images of certain locations at certain times out of ISS’ window and since 2007 have particularly monitored the polar regions. Other protocols for Earth observation exercises followed. Soon, the atmosphere may be monitored and natural disasters forecast from the station.

When ISS Expedition 35/36 launches from Baikonour Cosmodrome on March 28, they will carry with them a system of sensors and antennas designed to study plasma/wave processes in the upper atmosphere, reports RIA Novosti. Expedition 36 Commander Pavel Vinogradov says that these measurements “will eventually benefit mankind by forecasting earthquakes and other natural disasters.” Such initiatives are bound to become more critical as weather forecasting satellites over the United States age and fail  – a gap in polar orbiting weather satellite coverage in the US is expected around 2017 – and agencies look for less expensive ways to meet observation needs with shrinking budgets. ISS is increasingly the answer for simplified equipment deployment. In addition to Earth observation, Japan inaugurated a CubeSat launching apparatus from the Kibo module in October 2012. The station also hosts agricultural cameras and performs ground-coordinated aurora photography among other initiatives.

The new equipment will be installed in one of four space walks for the Expedition 35/36 crew members. Most of the extravehicular activity will be in preparation for the new laboratory and research modules that will be expanding the Russian segment later in 2013.

Below, video from the Crew Earth Observation (CEO) research project: