Many people assume that mankind’s space missions are all focused on the cosmos, studying our solar system, distant galaxies, stars and other wonders. But from the earliest days of spaceflight, NASA and other space agencies have also been keenly interested in examining the Earth. Earth photographs taken from space have added to our knowledge in many fields, from climatology and oceanography to geopolitics. Through the years, astronauts and satellites have taken more than 1 million images of Earth; if you’re curious, you could spend countless hours browsing through these images at NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth site. Here’s an abridged version, featuring 10 unusual or otherwise noteworthy photos with a “Wow!” factor. (Editor’s note: All photos are credited to the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center/http://www.eol.jsc.nasa.gov.)
10. Mount Etna Erupts
Volcanic eruptions are some of the most spectacular Earth events visible from space, as illustrated by this International Space Station photo of the Sicilian stratovolcano Mount Etna in 2002. Ash from this massive eruption fell hundreds of miles away across the Mediterranean Sea in Libya.
9. Golden Gate Shadows
While aboard the ISS, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi Tweeted this photo he took of the Golden Gate Bridge. The shadows cast by one of the support towers, the roadway and cables makes this bridge’s identity quite clear even from 240 or so miles in altitude.
8. Cutting Mount Everest Down to Size
As viewed from the ISS, Mount Everest (at right in photo) seems tiny and insignificant, as this photo taken looking south over the Tibetan Plateau illustrates. And what appear to be smaller “foothills” surrounding the 29,035-foot-tall Everest are in fact enormous peaks measuring more than 15,000 feet in height. The tall summit to the left of Everest is Makalu (27,765 feet).
7. Las Vegas Strip at Night
What’s the brightest spot on Earth? According to NASA’s observations, it may be the Las Vegas Strip, where the conglomeration of resort hotels and casinos light up the night sky. If you’ve never been to Las Vegas, the vast blackness surrounding the city should confirm the fact that this city is indeed situated in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Improvements in digital photo technology, along with the astronauts honing their skills in manually tracking targets, have led to improved nighttime shots such as this one.
6. Sunset Highlights Layers of Atmosphere
This edge-on view of a sunset over the Indian Ocean provides an incredible illustration of the different layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. By the way, with the ISS traveling at more than 15,000 mph, the astronauts get to enjoy 16 sunrises and sunsets each day; given that rate of speed, however, each one lasts only seconds.
5. Egypt’s Great Pyramids Stand Out
Many manmade objects are visible from space, everything from bridges (see No. 9 above) and dams to ancient creations, such as the Great Wall of China and Egypt’s Great Pyramids of Giza, visible in the direct center of the above photo.
4. 9/11 Viewed From Space
NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was aboard the International Space Station on Sept. 11, 2001, when he spotted a big cloud of smoke over the tip of Manhattan Island. As Culbertson noted in a NASA video commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, “I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I knew it was really bad because there was a big cloud of debris covering Manhattan. That’s when it really became painful because it was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, of your family, your friends.”
3. Which Golf Course Is This?
What is this, some bizarre hole on a golf course? A weird bacterium under a microscope? This is actually a photo of Caroline Island, located in the central Pacific Ocean near the International Date Line. This unusual atoll features 39 small islets (the green areas) surrounding an inner lagoon. The island is part of the Republic of Kiribati.
2. Space Shuttle Launch
This photo of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (NASA mission STS-115) launch in September 2006 was widely reported as having been taken from space. In fact, the photo came from a NASA High Altitude Research aircraft reportedly flying at around 48,000 feet. That’s far from space, which is generally regarded as beginning at 62 miles above Earth — but it’s still a remarkable photo.
1. The View Inside The Northern Lights
The Northern and Southern Lights (or aurora borealis and aurora australis, respectively, if you insist on technical terms) put on a spectacular show for those lucky enough to see them from ground level. Astronauts enjoy an especially breathtaking view of this natural phenomenon, which is caused as solar winds interact with the Earth’s atmosphere. “We can actually fly into the auroras,” said NASA astronaut and flight engineer Don Pettit. “It’s like being shrunk down and put inside of a neon sign.”
Pettit and his fellow astronauts aboard the ISS got the show of a lifetime in January 2012, when fierce solar flares created spectacular auroras, including the one pictured above. “The auroras could be seen [as brightly as] city lights on the Earth below — and even in the day-night terminator of the rising and setting sun. It was simply amazing,” Pettit said.
One More: Behind the Lens
Astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station transmitted their first image of Earth — a thunderstorm — in November 2000. They sent photo No. 250,000 in 2006, but have picked up the rate since, transmitting photo No. 1 million in April 2012. Here, astronaut Don Pettit is hard at work with his camera at the optical window in the station’s Destiny module.