Earth observations taken from shuttle Discovery during STS-85 mission
STS085-503-061 (7 - 19 August 1997) --- Lakes Balkhash and Alakol, southern uplands of Kazakhstan, central Asia. The long, 600 kilometers arc of Lake Balkhash occupies the center of this clear west-looking view. The left of the view shows clearly the westernmost Dzungarian Basin in the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur (Sinkiang), China. Kazakhstan's capital city Almaty (Alma-Ata) lies out of sight behind the boom. The Dzungarian Gate is the straight, fault-bounded valley cutting through the Dzhungarskiy Alatau Range. The Gate has acted as a major pass for centuries, allowing access between east Asia and central Asia (the valley floor is about 1,500 feet, whereas peaks reach 15,000 feet on the west and about 10,000 feet on the east side) -- it was one of the routes used by the Mongols when they began their invasion of central Asia and Europe in the 13th century. Lake Ebinur is the bright area beneath the dust plume (left center); strong north winds from the steppes of Kazakhstan and Russia are funneled through the Dzungarian Gate where they pick up sediment from dry lakebeds and blow it into China. The Ili River flows westward, parallel to the Dzhungarskiy Alatau Range, through Kapchagay Lake (partially visible beneath boom), then northwest across a large delta plain and into Lake Balkhash.
The Space Shuttle program was the United States government's manned launch vehicle program from 1981 to 2011, administered by NASA and officially beginning in 1972. The Space Shuttle system—composed of an orbiter launched with two reusable solid rocket boosters and a disposable external fuel tank— carried up to eight astronauts and up to 50,000 lb (23,000 kg) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO). When its mission was complete, the orbiter would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and lands as a glider. Although the concept had been explored since the late 1960s, the program formally commenced in 1972 and was the focus of NASA's manned operations after the final Apollo and Skylab flights in the mid-1970s. It started with the launch of the first shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981, on STS-1. and finished with its last mission, STS-135 flown by Atlantis, in July 2011.