The lights of London (at left) and Paris glow in a view captured from the International Space Station. The station's robotic arm looms in the foreground. NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio's Twitter picture has been rotated 180 degrees to produce this perspective.
Paris earns its reputation as the "City of Light" in this night view from the International Space Station — but off to the west, London gets its share of the orbital spotlight as well. "We now have incredible night passes over Europe," NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio reported as he shared this picture via Twitter on Monday. "City lights and stars make beautiful show."
Steam and ash stream from the twin volcanoes on the island of Ambrym in the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, as seen in a picture captured from the International Space Station as it passed overhead. "Not every day you get to see an active volcano, let alone two," NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins tweeted on Monday.
When it comes to wide-angle views of our planet, the International Space Station is the place to be. Fortunately, the orbital outpost's residents are only too happy to share. You'll find some recent stunners in our Month in Space Pictures slideshow — and many, many more online.
Here are some of the places to look for pictures from humanity's high frontier:
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station photographed this striking view of Pavlof Volcano on May 18. The oblique perspective from the ISS reveals the three dimensional structure of the ash plume, which is often obscured by the top-down view of most remote sensing satellites.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured this stunning view of an ash plume streaming from Pavlof Volcano on May 18. The volcano began erupting 10 days ago in Alaska's chain of Aleutian Islands, about 625 miles (1,000 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage.
Since his arrival at the station on Dec. 21, Hadfield has posted more than 100 pictures to Twitter and Google+, most of them showing amazing views of Earth below. Between his official duties and his unofficial Earth-watching sessions, how does he find time to sleep?
"Yes, I should sleep more on station," he told one follower, "but the view from the window is like a perpetual magnet, too wondrous to ignore."
His favorite hangout is the seven-windowed Cupola observation deck, which provides an unparalleled view of Earth. His favorite camera? "We use primarily Nikon F2s and F3s, with a variety of lenses," he said on Twitter. "We even take them out on spacewalks, into the hard vacuum."
To get those awesome pictures of Earth landscapes, he brings out the Big Lens. "The big lens is Nikkor 600 mm, used with a 2-fold converter = 1200 mm," he tweeted. "Available for just US$10,300."
When you consider that the space station's crew is delivering pictures that no one on Earth can, that seems like a small price to pay. Check out a few of the recent masterpieces from outer space:
Correction for 8 p.m. ET Jan. 8: The original headline for this item called Hadfield the space station's skipper, but it's a little too early to call him that. NASA astronaut Kevin Ford is currently the station commander, and Hadfield is a flight engineer. Hadfield will take on the title of commander when Ford heads back down to Earth in March.
Update for 1 p.m. ET Jan. 9: I've added a link to Hadfield's Google+ page as well as a couple of fresh images, showing the Australian wildfires and a Central Asian landscape.
From left to right, you can see the pyramids of the Pharaohs Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu, with the Sphinx sitting southeast of Khufu's Great Pyramid. (North is pointing toward the upper right corner of the frame.) Several smaller, unfinished pyramids lie to the south of Menkaure's monument, and fields of rectangular, flat-roofed tombs sprawl to the east and west of Khufu's pyramid. There's a golf course right next to the pyramids, and the streets and buildings of El Giza spread out to the picture's right edge.
The Pyramids at Giza date back 4,500 years, which makes them at least a millennium older than the oldest Maya pyramids.
This view of the pyramids from space serves as today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which serves up a fresh picture of Earth as seen from space every day until Christmas. Click on the links below to sample the calendar's other visual goodies:
From a cosmic perspective, our planet has a peaceful beauty — no matter what tumult is raging far below. That's the message NASA astronaut Ron Garan wanted to send with this picture of the northeastern United States. Today, if you could zoom in far enough on this view today, you could see the anguish left behind in the wake of Friday's horrible school shooting in Connecticut.
"When we look at Earth from space, we are faced with a sobering contradiction," Garan writes on his Google+ page. "On the one hand is the beauty of our planet, on the other is the unfortunate reality of life on our planet for many of her inhabitants. Our prayers are with the victims and families in Connecticut. #LoveConquersAll"
Garan wasn't the first human to reflect on the cosmic perspective produced by outer-space views: Astronauts and philosophers have long talked about the "Overview Effect," the sense of planetary unity that arises when you see Earth as an object suspended in space. Just this month, a group known as Planetary Collective unveiled an online video documentary exploring the phenomenon.
And then there's Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and writer who passed away 16 years ago this month. He helped persuade NASA to turn the camera on its Voyager 1 deep-space probe back toward Earth in 1990, to capture a priceless picture of our "pale blue dot" as a speck in outer space.
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," Sagan wrote. "To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
This photograph, taken on Nov. 9 from the International Space Station, shows a rugged range of Asian peaks. Initially the mountains were identified as the Himalayas, with Mount Everest in the center, but since then experts on the region have said the picture actually shows a different mountain range.
Some of the highest mountains in the world were far below Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko when he took this picture a month ago from the International Space Station. Now Malenchenko has come back down to Earth, but the picture has been getting sky-high attention from the Twitterverse — in part because of a debate over what it shows.
Peter Caltner, a.k.a. @PC0101, put the picture into his Twitpic feed on Saturday, calling it an outer-space view of Mount Everest. NASA astronaut Ron Garan — a recent space station resident known on Twitter as @Astro_Ron — picked up on the pic with a tweet of his own. "I never got a good shot of Mt. Everest from space," he wrote. In a follow-up, Garan explained to The Atlantic's Rebecca J. Rosen why he missed out on that Everest snapshot.
Since then, folks who are familiar with the area have tweeted that the picture shows a different range of mountains. "This is ... Sasan Kangari — near India, Pakistan and Tibet border," Phalano reported.
This picture isn't the only gem from Malenchenko: Caltner's Twitpic gallery features more of the cosmonaut's outer-space photos — including new nighttime views of St. Louis, Tokyo and the Sea of Brightness off the coast of South Korea. Check 'em out. And while you're at it, check out these other views of our planet from above. They're part of the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features a daily look at Earth from space, every day from now until Christmas:
Correction for 6:50 p.m. ET: I've updated the original version of this item with the "Is it Everest, or isn't it?" debate. The Atlantic updated its original item with a different picture of Everest, taken in 2004.
NASA spacewalker Sunita Williams looks as if she's reaching out to touch the sun in this picture, which is one of the coolest views ever sent down from the International Space Station. Of course, the sun is actually about 93 million miles behind her. This is one of those joke pictures like the ones that show someone plucking up the Eiffel Tower — only it was taken in outer space.
In addition to the Suni vs. sun angle, this picture is special because the photographer is mirrored in Williams' shiny helmet visor. If you look closely at the full-resolution image, you can catch sight of Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide holding up the Nikon D2Xs camera that took the picture, with one of the space station's solar arrays behind him. The setting reminds me of Neil Armstrong's famous Apollo 11 picture of Buzz Aldrin, which similarly shows the photographer's reflection.
Speaking of reflections, the photo below is something of a self-portrait, cleverly set up by Hoshide. He held the camera in front of himself, like someone taking an iPhone self-portrait, and snapped away with the sun's glare in the background. You can't see Hoshide's face in the visor, but you can see the structure of the space station and our beautiful blue-and-white planet about 240 miles (385 kilometers) below.
These pictures and others on NASA's Flickr site were taken on Wednesday, during a 6½-hour spacewalk to replace a power switching unit and a broken camera on the robotic arm. The operation followed up on an earlier outing that went awry because Williams and Hoshide couldn't screw in one of the power box's installation bolts. This time around, the spacewalkers used an array of tools — including a wire pipe cleaner and a toothbrush — to clear metal shavings out of the bolt housings and, in Hoshide's words, "get 'er done."
These pictures prove that Hoshide can get 'er done with a camera as well as an orbital toolbox.
NASA / JAXA
Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide's self-portrait, taken during a Sept. 5 spacewalk, shows the International Space Station and Earth mirrored in his helmet visor.
Who in the Cosmos Hoshide's self-portrait served as the focus of this week's "Where in the Cosmos" photo puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page, which turned out to be a "Who in the Cosmos" puzzler. It took just a couple of minutes for Cade Frost to figure out who the mystery astronaut was, even though there wasn't much to go on. (The best clue is the tiny sliver of the Japanese flag visible on Hoshide's shoulder patch.) To reward Frost's sharp eyes and close attention to space station operations, I'm sending him a pair of 3-D glasses — which will come in handy for watching space station videos like this one. To get in on next week's "Where in the Cosmos" puzzle, be sure to hit the "like" button for the Cosmic Log Facebook page. And to see more cool cosmic images, take a spin through August's Month in Space Pictures slideshow.
Russian space agency rescue team members carry U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz TMA-03M space capsule at the southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, July 1.
Sergey Remezov / AFP - Getty Images
The Soyuz TMA-03M capsule, carrying International Space Station (ISS) crew members lands.
"On Earth, the frontiers opened slowly," Pettit wrote. "The technology of sailing was known and advanced for over a thousand years before the Earth was circumnavigated. Such bold acts require the technology, the will, and the audacity to explore. Sometimes you have one, but not the others. I only hope that my small efforts here, perhaps adding one grain of sand to the beach of knowledge, will help enable a generation of people in the future to call space 'home.'" [Landing Photos: Soyuz Capsule Returns 3 Astronauts Home]
Handout image provided by SpaceX on Thursday shows the SpaceX 'Dragon' commercial cargo craft after it was recovered in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the coast of Southern California. The Dragon spacecraft returned to earth after becoming the first private craft ever to reach the orbiting International Space Station.
These composite images show Uranian auroras as bright spots on the planet's disk on Nov 16, 2011 (left), and on Nov. 29 (right). The images from the Hubble Space Telescope have been processed to bring out details in Uranus' faint ring system.
Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have caught a rare display of auroras on Uranus, which ranks among the solar system's oddest planets.
Unlike the beautiful, rippling curtains of greenish light we've been seeing in earthly skies over the past few months, the Uranian auroras are short-lived bright spots sitting on top of the ice giant's bluish cloud tops. But they're caused by a similar mechanism, involving the interaction of electrically charged particles with atoms and ions in the planet's upper atmosphere.
NASA's Voyager 2 probe picked up the first evidence of Uranus' auroras in 1986. "Since then, we've had no opportunities to get new observations of this very unusual magnetosphere," Laurent Lamy, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris, said today in a news release. There have been a fewhints of auroral observations, but Hubble's views from last November rank as the best views yet. Lamy and his colleagues provide the details in a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters.
The team took advantage of a lucky break and a favorable planetary alignment: Last year, Earth, Jupiter and Uranus were lined up so that energetic solar emissions could flow past each planet in turn. When the sun produced several outbursts in September, the astronomers timed the flow of the particle storm past Earth a couple of days later, and then detected the flow past Jupiter two weeks after that. On the basis of those readings, they calculated that the outburst would reach Uranus in mid-November, and scrambled to schedule observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Uranus is an oddity because it basically rotates on its side as it orbits the sun. The orientation of its magnetosphere is tilted 60 degrees with respect to its rotational axis. As a result, during the current season, each of the planet's magnetic poles turns to face the sun in the course of a Uranian day. "This configuration is unique in the solar system," Lamy said.
Hubble was well-placed to catch the auroral flashes on the sunlit side, near Uranus' north magnetic pole. Each flash appeared to last only a couple of minutes, the astronomers said.
Lights on Earth And then there's Earth. Last October, a solar outburst sparked northern lights that could be seen as far south as the state of Mississippi, and over the past month, higher-latitude residents have been treated to almost as many fireworks displays as Disneyland tourists typically get to see. Although the approach of summer is starting to cut down on the opportunities to see auroras in the Northern Hemisphere, some folks got great views as recently as last night. Here are a few of the highlights:
Shawn Malone of Marquette, Mich., snapped pictures of the aurora from the shores of Lake Superior. "The sky was ablaze in light," Malone told SpaceWeather.com. "Northern lights were so bright they lit up the beach!" For more from Malone, check out LakeSuperiorPhoto.com and his Vimeo video gallery.
This video showing the southern lights was taken by the crew of the International Space Station on March 10, during a pass from the Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia, to southern New Zealand. The video was released this week.
Here's a different angle on the aurora and the International Space Station, captured by Brian Larmay of Beecher, Wis. The long streak in this time-lapse photograph is the space station, sailing across the sky. To see more of Larmay's pictures, check out his SmugMug gallery.
'Where in the Cosmos' Today's picture of auroral displays on Uranus served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It took only a couple of minutes for Shirley Beningo to blurt out which celestial body was shown in the picture, and what the bright spots were. To reward her for her quick cosmic vision, I'm sending her a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses, wrapped up in a 3-D picture of yours truly. Ashley Nicole and Gerry Marien came in as the runners-up, and are eligible for 3-D glasses as well. Be sure to click the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page so you're ready for next Friday's "Where in the Cosmos" contest.
In addition to Lamy, the authors of "Earth-Based Detection of Uranus' Aurorae" include R. Prange, K.C. Hansen, J.T. Clarke, P. Zarka, B. Cecconi, J. Aboudarham, N. Andre, G. Branduardi-Raymont, R. Gladstone, M. Barthelemy, N. Achilleos, P. Guio, M.K. Dougherty, H. Melin, S.W.H. Cowley, T.S. Stallard, J.D. Nichols and G. Ballester.