Seeing our planet from orbit is, by all accounts, a truly remarkable experience. There’s even a phenomenon called the overview effect in which seeing the Earth from space can result in a profound change in how a person sees the world and their place in it.
Those of us who are stuck on the ground can get a small glimpse of what that experience might be like from the photographs taken by astronauts or by instruments that show incredible views of our planet from high above.
The Picturing Earth series from the Earth Science and Remote Sensing (ESRS) unit at NASA’s Johnson Space Center has cataloged many of the images taken of Earth from above and has now shared some favorite images selected by team members and an astronaut who served on the International Space Station (ISS).
Jeff Williams was a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 13 in 2006, and while in orbit he noticed the Cleveland Volcano on Chuginadak Island in Alaska erupting and spewing out a plume of ash. He notified the Alaska Volcano Observatory of the event and snapped this photograph from the ISS using a digital camera and an 800 mm lens.
At 3:00 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time on May 23, 2006, flight engineer Jeff Williams from International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 13 contacted the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) to report that the Cleveland Volcano had produced a plume of ash. Shortly after the activity began, he took this photograph. NASA, Earth Science and Remote Sensing (ESRS) unit
Another photograph Williams chose as one of his favorites was this shot of the Grand Canyon. This was taken in 2009 as the ISS passed over the Pacific Ocean near Baja, and he was able to see the canyon at around midday there. Also captured with a digital camera and an 800 mm lens, Williams took a series of photos which were then stitched together into a mosaic.
The Grand Canyon shot from the International Space Station (ISS) on December 18, 2009, by astronaut Jeff Williams. NASA, Earth Science and Remote Sensing (ESRS) unit
Another favorite photograph chosen by team member Andrea Meado is this remarkable night-time view of Bangkok, Thailand, which was captured from the ISS in 2017. It shows not only the illumination of the city lights, but also a large swath of green lights out at sea. These green lights are fishing boats, with the lights used to lure in plankton and fish, which are fed on by the squid that the fishermen catch.
This oblique photograph, taken by an astronaut from the International Space Station, shows the city of Bangkok illuminated by city lights. NASA, Earth Science and Remote Sensing (ESRS) unit
Finally, this haunting shot taken from the ISS in 2012 shows delicate polar mesospheric clouds, taken as the ISS passed over the Tibetan Plateau. This shot was selected by data scientist Mark Lambert for the way it shows these beautiful clouds which we don’t see from Earth because they are too high up.
Polar Mesospheric Clouds in the Northern Hemisphere. “Night-shining” clouds form at high altitudes in late spring and early summer. NASA, Earth Science and Remote Sensing (ESRS) unit
For even more amazing photographs taken by astronauts, you can spend a calming afternoon browsing through the NASA Earth Observatory’s Astronaut Photography gallery.