Cosmonaut Photographed South Ossetia From ISS Shortly After Russian Invasion

by Ian O'Neill on August 27, 2008

The Georgia conflict causes more controversy for the ISS (Telegraph/NASA)

The Georgia conflict causes more controversy for the ISS (Telegraph/NASA)


During a Russian weather observation campaign, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko took photographs above the South Ossetia region of Georgia soon after the Russian military action in the area on August 9th. According to NASA’s ISS Daily Report, Kononenko was monitoring the “after-effects of border conflict operations in the Caucasus” and his orders from Moscow instructed him to carry out this task for humanitarian reasons. Some sources are suspicious of this possible orbital reconnaissance opportunity, citing that the 1998 ISS international agreement enforces the rule that the space station can only be used for civilian activities. However, NASA has stated that the Russian space agency Roscosmos admitted to the photography request, saying that the images were required to monitor serious water management issues and not intended for military purposes…

This new article to surface in the Aviation Week website refers to a paragraph in the August 9th entry of the International Space Station Daily Reports:

Also working from the discretionary task list, Oleg Kononenko conducted another session of the Russian GFI-8 “Uragan” (hurricane) earth-imaging program, using the D2X digital camera with the F800 telephoto lens and the HVR-Z1J SONY video camera. [Uplinked target areas were glaciers on the north slope of the main Caucasus Ridge, the Dombai region, after-effects of border conflict operations in the Caucasus, the Kalmyk steppe, the main stem stream of the Volga river (west-most) from Astrakhan to Caspian Sea, a series of overlapping shots of the Ob and Bia river valleys (Bia river head stream, Teletsk lake, confluence of Katun and Bia rivers form Ob river), general photography of Carpathian region on both sides of track and of the river valleys in Moldova, gulley and ravine topography of Central Russia up to Volga river, steppe on the left shore of Volga river to the south of Saratov including Y. A. Gagarin’s landing site in nadir, petroleum deposits along both shores of the Ural river and oil drilling fields, former Soviet Army fire ranges in Germany and coal pits after reclamation, scenic shots of Central America and Caribbean basin for educational purposes, and the Gulf Stream.] – ISS Daily Report (Aug. 9th) (emphasis added)

Naturally, only two days after the Russian infringement into the troubled region of Georgia, such a photography campaign from orbit could be seen as a prime opportunity for Russia to attain large-scale imagery for military gain. The AW article even goes as far as outlining the original treaty signed by Russia and the USA stating that the ISS cannot be used for any other reason other than civilian purposes. If Russia did indeed use the ISS for military gain, they would violate the January 29th 1998 ISS cooperation agreement which states (in Article 14), “The Space Station together with its additions of evolutionary capability will remain a civil station, and its operation and utilization will be for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.”

In response to the concerns raised by the AW reporter, a NASA spokesman replied, “Roscosmos informed us that the pictures were requested to support potential humanitarian activities in the area, including serious water resource management issues.” He also added that there was no need for the matter to be investigated further.

Before hostilities broke out in Georgia, Russian news reported that there were water shortages around the main city of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia due to diversions by Georgian villagers to the south. When the fighting started international aid organizations did struggle to distribute water to the affected area. Besides, many would argue that the Russian military wouldn’t need military reconnaissance from orbit as Russian forces dominated the region anyway.

I’m also curious just how much detail could really be picked out by using a digital camera and 800mm telephoto lens from 330 km (180 miles) high. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be that much use for military purposes…

Sources: NASA, Aviation Week

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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