Cosmonaut Photographed South Ossetia From ISS Shortly After Russian Invasion

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

21 Replies to “Cosmonaut Photographed South Ossetia From ISS Shortly After Russian Invasion”

  1. I’m not that good in conspirasy theories, but why the heck our (I’m Russian) government would use ISS while there are (I believe) a lot of satellites that are specifically intended for military and surveillance purposes? I guess it was your site that blogged about a guy who spies after sattelites that “are not there” – so I think both US and Russia has quite enough surveillance, targeting and whatever power on orbits. Sounds like a provocation and that’s just pity. PR made this conflict not governmental, it’s people who actually involved now. And worst of all is that such things as space exploration will suffer.

  2. ISS really isn’t a very good platform for military intelligence. For instance you can’t take pictures under similar lighting conditions over several days (ie. be at the same spot at the same time of day during several days). Also, Russia already has assets that are much better suited to such tasks.

    The whole issue does however, in my opinion, raise some questions on cooperating with a country that has problems distinguishing between national security and everything else. One of the problems is that Russian society has not developed a “democratic mindset” where intelligence community does not (or should not) meddle in the life of the ordinary civil society.

  3. @Adam, re your second paragraph, you do realize that the exact same thing could be said about the US, don’t you? Iraq rings any bells?

    So I wouldn’t follow that line of thinking if I were you. You shouldn’t throw rocks at the neighours for doing exactly the same thing you do. They might throw them back at you.

  4. Paul Smith has it correct. If the use of sattelites or the space station were used for observation it should have been very clear that Georgia initiated the insanity. When you poke a bear with a stick you will be lucky to only lose your arm.

  5. @Jorge
    I agree to some extent. The main differences here would be that the control over the intelligence and military in the US is incomparably more effective than in Russia (not to mention free press) and no matter what one might think of Saakashvili one can not compare him to Saddam Hussein. Also, the separatists in South Ossetia *have* been shelling the government side for days (or maybe even weeks) before Tbilisi acted the way they did. In conclusion, yes, the US has in my opinion a nasty habit of deciding how others will govern themselves but the US *is* a democratic society while Russia definitely has some distance to go.

  6. I think the larger issue is the use of a space facility by a whole bunch of people who have sometimes different ideologies. We haven’t figured out how to get along with each other, so these squabbles that arise out of taking pictures of “controversial” things will only continue.

  7. @Adam
    If you still think the US is a democratic society riddle me this. What is the last *great* thing that was done for ALL the American people?

  8. Well, Saakashvili is still in government and the russians have (largely) retreated back into Ossetia and Abkhasia, a week or two after the georgian attack. Saddam is dead, and the US continues in Iraq 5 years later. So yes, there is a vast difference between the two situations.

    But I’m not into a discussion of international politics, quite frankly. I just wish people took a step back and thought this thing through before starting to throw rocks and creating an atmosphere that jeopardizes international cooperation in the ISS and other projects.

  9. @It: “Last great thing” – that would be a matter of taste. Generally speaking there is no single country where all the people have ever been happy with any one decision made by their government but if you’re suggesting that USA is just as undemocratic as Russia then you have lost the sense of perspective, in my opinion.

    I could go on for some time about the pros and cons of the two countries as I have direct experience of both but this is probably not a very good place to do it.

    There is one constrain on NASA that causes it some of its problems: it’s funded by the tax money which means that its actions are (at least in theory) controlled by the people through the politicians. This means government regulations and official US policies need to be met. Obviously, as long as a large portion of Americans is wary of Russia cooperation will be dogged by “issues” (as David R. pointed out above). Had anything like that happened on say Bigelow Aerospace’s station it would be just between Bigelow Aerospace and whoever took the pictures. Now it is between the American, Canadian, European and Japanese taxpayers on one side and Russian government on the other. And that makes it way more complicated and sensitive. That was my point.

  10. @Adam
    I do agree with your point that we have a nasty habit of deciding how others will govern themselves. My point was maybe we should worry about some serious problems within our own borders first and foremost. Like how is it we can get “aid and supplies” halfway around the world to Georgia faster than New Orleans.

  11. @It,

    We have to worry about serious problems inside and outside our borders. Often at the same time.

    You probably didn’t notice but the distribution of aid to victims of recent flooding was very efficient. It seems that most of the problems with FEMA that led to trouble in NO have been fixed. That, and the very inefficient local and LA state government were not involved this time. This was a very big non-story. Probably ’cause its not interesting when things work well.

    As things continue to deteriorate with Russia, cooperation may be much more difficult on the ISS and other projects. While I do believe the NASA spokesperson, I do have a nagging thought that NASA might just sweep things like this under the rug for diplomatic purposes (that and I don’t know why Russia would need pics from the ISS – they are flying planes over Georgia at will – unless to make a point).

  12. What if Russia truly was concerned about water in the region as described? The ISS is the best place to do on the spot science, such as disaster recovery planning for millions who might have been without water due to Georgian’s tampering with South Ossetian water supplies. Some scientist, and maybe even a government official, should be commended for the forethought.

    None of us here are likely close enough to the real conflicts to judge Russia’s intent, although I think to a person we would acknowledge that there could be absolutely no military purpose to these photo’s. Flexing its might by using the ISS for spying? Please. This is not a controversy, its alarmist. I think Russia has demonstrated an overwhelming unity with the world in space exploration. Yes, our governments may differ on how information is dissemniated, or how explanations are handled for mistakes, but at the level of actually getting science done, we’re glad they’re here. Our (US’s) own natioanlistic stances on issues like this will do more to damage the cooperative spirit expected in operating the ISS, than would ever a few photos taken of glaciers from space.

  13. @ It
    How about the genetic non-discrimination act? Of course there are plenty of people out there who would disagree.

    @ jshobe
    I’ll second that

  14. When we, or our allies put satellites that can read the print off a newspaper in orbit above another country, it’s a progressive intelligence gathering strategy.

    When someone we’re not allied with puts one above our country or one of our allies – it’s spying or aggressive espionage, and can’t be tolerated.

    Don’t you just love politics and the military?

  15. Sorry you get it wrong. Corrupted Gorgian government started the invasion. I liked that blog but now concerned about the validity of the information.

  16. Meh, Seriously, should anyone care ?
    I mean if you don’t want to be photographed in this day and age, then don’t do something, otherwise do it, prepare for it and wear the consequences.
    If I was on the ISS and could get a clear shot of any conflict or event I’d snap it too, of course in the name of water management or global warming or planet X research and file it away in my ‘cool photo’s’ blog, i find it unreasonable to expect any country not to take an interest and photo op if presented.
    Just my 2c.


  17. About the conflict. I think that the reaction of western countries and media is, at least, shameful. Georgia is not more democratic or less corrupt than Russia. Neither USA is an example regarding interventionism in other countries.

    Back to the post: Two hypothesis: 1) That camera “sees” things that spy planes and satellites normally can’t. So, they needed these data. 2) It was just a political act with the objective of remembering the USA government that they need a lot of Russian collaboration in the ISS. Shuttles will be grounded soon!

  18. While there are a lot of unanswered questions about the Russian/Georgian conflict one thing remains sure just as in Iraq this has nothing to do with upholding democracy or some backwater countries sovereignty. Pure and simply put these actions have were put into place years ago they were just put into action thats all.
    If you dont believe me go to youtube and look up Ron Paul predicted Georgian invasion.

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