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Astronauts Spot Australia's Deadly Wildfires from Space Station as Satellites Keep Watch

An astronaut on the International Space Station captured this view of smoke from devastating wildfires obscuring the region around Sydney, Australia on Jan. 3, 2020. (Image credit: NASA via Twitter)

The horrific wildfires of southeastern Australia right are clearly visible to satellites in space, and now astronauts have begun tracking them from the International Space Station.

A new photo, which NASA shared on Twitter (opens in new tab) Jan. 3, shows billowing smoke that surrounds Sydney and is blowing into the nearby Tasman Sea. At the time, the space station was roughly 269 miles (433 kilometers) above Australia at the time, NASA said in the tweet.

The wildfires, which began September, have so far killed at least 25 people. The fires have burned an area about twice the size of the state of Maryland, torching about 2,000 houses and, according to the Associated Press (opens in new tab). Additionally, Australia's wildlife has suffered tremendously (opens in new tab), with countless animals losing their lives to the fires. 

Related: Australia's Deadly Wildfires in Photos: The View from Space (opens in new tab)

A satellite image of the smoke coming from the Australia wildfires on Jan. 1, 2020. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Mike Carlowicz.)

While this is wildfire season in Australia, experts have said that these fires are more extreme than usual and can be linked to climate change. "Climate change is increasing bushfire risk in Australia by lengthening the fire season, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperature," the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has said, according to USA Today (opens in new tab).  

A satellite image of Australia before the devastating fires of this fall/winter, taken on July 24, 2019. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Mike Carlowicz.)

In addition to astronaut views, NASA's venerable Landsat 8 and Aqua Earth-imaging satellites have captured images of the thick smoke in southeastern Australia, particularly around Victoria and New South Wales. The dusty smoke shows up as tan in the images, while normal clouds look bright white, NASA said in a statement (opens in new tab).

A satellite image of the smoke coming from the Australia wildfires on Jan. 1, 2020. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Mike Carlowicz.)

"The record-setting and deadly fire season in Australia took a dramatic turn in the last week of December and the first week of January," Mike Carlowicz with NASA's Earth Observatory (opens in new tab) at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland wrote in the statement. "Residents of southeastern Australia told news media about the daytime seeming to turn to night, as thick smoke filled the skies and intense fires drove people from their homes."

On Monday (Jan. 6), Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he would provide an additional 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) to fight the fires. "The fires are still burning. And they'll be burning for months to come," Morrison said in the Associated Press report (opens in new tab). "If more is needed and the cost is higher, then more will be provided."

However, despite the promises made by Morrison and existing support to fight against the raging fires, many Australians are unhappy (opens in new tab) with the Prime Minister's previously, seemingly relaxed attitude toward the crisis and his dismissal of climate change and its deadly impact, according to the New York Times (opens in new tab).

NASA has been keeping a close eye on this crisis for weeks and has been updating satellite imagery frequently via its Worldview tool. This tool feeds in data from 26 satellites (known as the Earth Observing System); observatories such as Aqua, Suomi NPP and Terra all contribute to the massive database. 

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.