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Holiday calendar: Sleigh ride in orbit

Are these the scenes that Santa sees on Christmas Eve? This compilation of NASA clips is based on imagery from the International Space Station.



One of the most enjoyable parts of Santa's job must be to see the world from on high on Christmas Eve — but thanks to the astronauts on the International Space Station, we can get a similar view on video. Over the past year, the space station's night flights have produced some fantastic pictures of city lights and auroral displays. This video puts together some of the latest clips posted to NASA's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.

You're actually looking at five time-lapse clips, strung together for a west-to-east journey:


• The first five seconds are from a trip heading up the U.S. East Coast on Dec. 11, with bright city lights strung up all the way from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington. You'll notice a green auroral glow in the upper left corner.

• The northern lights are the main attraction in the clip running from 0:05 to 0:25. This was the view looking north on Dec. 11 as the station was heading from Nova Scotia to northern Italy.

• Our virtual sleigh travels over Africa, Europe and Asia from 0:25 to 0:50, with the camera pointed toward the northeast. Among the sights from Dec. 4 are the Iberian Peninsula and north Africa, England and France, the Baltic Sea, Moscow and central Russia, and atmospheric airglow that gives way to the beginnings of sunrise in the east. Once again, there's a taste of northern lights in the upper left corner.

• The next clip, from 0:50 to 1:13, chronicles an Oct. 21 pass that begins at the coast of France and heads right across Europe. A couple of lightning flashes can be seen over Italy, then the space station makes its way across Turkey and onward to the Arabian Peninsula.

• My favorite part of the trip runs from 1:13 to the end, and takes in a swath of our planet from Central Asia to South Australia. This video was assembled from pictures taken during the space station's night flight on Oct. 29. Here's how the folks at NASA's Johnson Space Center describe the view:

"The video begins just northwest of the Tibetan Plateau, where the greenish glow is from airglow. The line separating the plateau and the city lights to the right of track are the Himalaya Mountains, with cities like New Delhi, Lahore, and Islamabad standing out. Continuing down track, one can spot the brightly lit city of Calcutta just right of track before flying over Burma and Thailand. Thailand's capital city, Bangkok, is the brightest-lit city in the video. The white lights of the city can be seen nearby the green and purple lights on the Gulf of Thailand, which are fishing boats and oil rigs. Once across the Gulf of Thailand, cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore stand out right of track before flying over the island of Java (long, thin island downtrack from Singapore). Near the end of the video the ISS flies southeast over Australia and lightning storms, and the Milky Way can be seen rising in the sky."

There's no soundtrack for the video, but feel free to play Christmas music in the background. You could fire up some "Space Age Santa Claus," or take a listen to the first live music broadcast from orbit: "Jingle Bells." Archive.org has the audio recording from 1965's Gemini 7/6 mission. The harmonica and jingling bells come in around 2:10 in the clip.

And now for something completely different: Check out this sleigh ride over Mars:

Take a virtual sleigh ride over the real landscapes of Mars, courtesy of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Looking for more night flyovers? Here's a sampling:

And if there's anything you've missed from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, here's your chance to catch up. We'll present our final image from the calendar on Christmas Day:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.