Some of the most stunning images in existence are photos from the International Space Station. The coolest and most breathtaking ISS pictures are taken on handheld cameras operated by the astronauts. Consider the selfies possible at over 200 miles above Earth with nothing but some tethers to hold you down.
Between work, school, friends, and updating social media it’s easy to forget that we’re spinning at 1,000 miles an hour on a small blue dot in the middle of an infinitely expansive chunk of Unknown. It frequently slips our minds. Luckily, we have astronauts and cameras to remind us just how far science – and humans – have come. Here are some of the most incredible pictures from the International Space Station to remind you of our place in whatever the universe even is.
Nighttime Over the Nile
Here, the Nile, the world’s largest river, is seen lit up from over 249 miles away on the Space Station. It’s photos like these that inspire words like sonder: “n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
Stargazing in the Midst of Space
ISS crew members see nighttime on Earth 16 times each crew day, from every orbital angle. This photo was taken over the Pacific Ocean, several miles south of Hawaii. Because scientists on Earth were able to determine the spacecraft’s location, they took their predicted star patterns and the star patterns found in this photo and concluded that the angle of the photo was pointed toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
There is an equatorial cloud layer keeping much of the ocean from view, but because of the location of Earth’s curve, air glow layers (those colorful parts) are still visible.
Cleveland Volcano Eruption, Aleutian Islands
Mount Cleveland is an active volcano is Alaska’s Aleutian Island Arc. While this photo, taken by astronaut Jeff Williams, is stunning, the volcano is actually a serious risk. The volcano has erupted several times since 2000 and poses a real threat to aircraft in particular.
When the ash plumes make their way through the air, planes can experience damage to their exterior. If the ash makes its way into the jet engine, engine failure can also occur.
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia, is Earth’s largest living feature. From here, it’s hard to tell that the reef is made up of 2,900 individual reefs, or that it’s home to over 1,500 fish species (and that doesn’t even begin to count whales, or turtles, or ascidians)!
ISS Repairs in Space
Imagine hanging from a floating laboratory in the middle of space to conduct some routine repairs on said floating laboratory. Just dangling up there. Thank goodness someone snapped a pic of the most epic hang out of all time.
Scandinavia at Night
The planet and its appearance is forever altered by man. This incredible photo, for example, displays a stunning view of Earth’s surface from the space station. Our spinning blue dot of dust is sprinkled with twinkling lights that simply didn’t exist a millisecond ago on the cosmic calendar. The glittering surface of our planet nearly mirrors the stars in the sky.
Light pollution awareness aside, this photo is a beautiful reminder of the billions of little lives that shine on that suspended globe.
Above the Force of Hurricane Isabel
The eye of Hurricane Isabel is captured here. That cotton candy-looking cloud matter swirling beneath the space station is actually the most devastating storm of the 2003 hurricane season. Only six hours after its conception, Hurricane Isabel was named. The winds reached 40 miles per hour on the sixth day, but by the end of its 14 day intensification period, the level 2 tropical storm became a classified level 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
The ISS snapped a photo of one of the longest lasting level 5 storms in history (approximately 36 hours at highest intensity).
Higher Than the Himalayas
So this is Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth, made to look like nothing more than a mogul on a black diamond slope. Staring at this photo you have to wonder how infinitely tiny one feels after climbing Everest, and how similar that finite realization is to the ones that astronauts must feel as they take photos like this one.
Photos of the highest point on Earth – from hundreds of miles above it.
Shine On, Star Trails, Shine On
This photo looks like it popped straight out of Back to the Future. The star trails in the photo are captured by using a longer exposure time to accurately depict the speed of Earth’s rotation. As though floating more than two hundred miles above Earth isn’t enough material for an existential crisis, watching just how quickly our home planet rotates might send an under-qualified space explorer into a tail spin.
If this photo doesn’t look like the stock wallpaper on a new computer, nothing does. The vibrant colors of this Hawaiian volcano are seen from spheres away. Photos like this one are taken on handheld cameras by the astronauts in order to document global changes as a result of human activity. Changes caused by global warming, pollution, and agricultural developments are all carefully tracked.
This particular photo was taken by European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and launched into the Twittersphere in 2015 with the message, “And suddenly as we flew over the Pacific… the island of #Hawaii with its volcanoes! #HelloEarth”
Hanging Out for Some ISS Maintenance
When something needs fixed on the Space Station, astronauts must complete the repairs. It’s a three-hour preparation process just to step outside and begin whatever maintenance is required, though. The first two hours are spent decompressing to prevent any bending in the space suit, and then the astronaut must breath pure oxygen for a full 60 minutes before he or she is fit for fixin’.
Here, an astronaut is conducting some technical maintenance on the ISS, but don’t worry, a seemingly string-like tether is fastened to the suit’s belt, preventing a Gravity situation.
Egypt Glints Gold at Night
Although the pyramids aren’t featured here, the gold light cast from Egpyt’s metropolitan areas leaves a glimmering impression. It looks like the land has cracked and gold is started spilling through the gaps, as though the country decided to dress up for the photo. In reality, the areas surrounding Egypt simply emit less light pollution.
Unsurprisingly, densely populated areas and areas of wealth light up the sky significantly more than those of poorer or more remote populations.
This image is stunning more for its vantage point than anything else. The lens seems eye level with the moon which, of course, it isn’t, but still! The moon’s rotation is synchronized with Earth’s, meaning that we only ever see one side of it. The other side, or “dark side,” of the moon is only ever seen by human eyes from space.
This photo allows little ol’ us to see a side of Earth’s only natural satellite that we otherwise couldn’t.
Adele Island in Australia
Although this island is stunning, it is incredibly difficult to get to (or leave). Adele Island is located off Kimberly Coast near western Australia and is surrounded by extensive reef systems. The relatively small landmass sits over a limestone platform and underwater canyons. Because of the topography of its surroundings, massive tides make visiting this island tricky.
Luckily, we have the trusty ISS to snap shots like this one, giving us access to inaccessible corners of the planet.
Salt Ponds, Australia
The stark contrast between the reds surrounding the Australian salt ponds and the blues of the Australian reef is a beautiful illustration of the vast variety of environments this spinning blue dot actually supports. The solar panel-looking squares are the ponds saturated in sodium, which is caused by industrial extraction.
The salt extraction industry is large in Western Australia, producing an average of 3 million tons of salt each year.
The Red Panels, White Clouds, and Blue Waters of Miami, Fl
This photo captures the space station from above as it floats over the Earth’s surface. That small(ish) structure is home to numerous scientific advances in medicine, engineering, and genetics. It officially made its debut as a national laboratory in 2005.
Lake Powell on the Border of Arizona and Utah
The massive floods from melted snow that plague this part of the country each year are manually controlled by an intricate water system. That water system includes a series of dams that result in lakes, like Lake Powell, seen here. The man-made water system attempts to provide large populations of people out west with enough clean drinking water. This is obviously a great benefit to those that need the water, but environmental risks make the entire system pretty controversial.
Whichever side of the border you fall on, there is no debate that this photo is beautiful.
Laguna Colorado Volcanoes
The caramel sundae section of this photo is the Laguna Colorado. The lake is relatively shallow and runs about sox miles long. Because of the high altitude of the lake there is less atmospheric fog, making photos of this area crisp and vibrant.
It gets its reddish color from the algae that survives in its salty depths. The smaller white section near the bottom left hand corner and just above the lake are the volcanoes in the Bolivian Andes Mountains.
Colombia’s Santa Marta Mountains
Colombia’s Santa Marta mountains are independent of the rest of the Andes and make up part of the world’s tallest coastal mountain range. This photo captures some of the mist that this range is known for, as well as its amazing peaks and valleys.
We’re only able to understand the sheer magnitude of this natural feature once we’re reminded that the delicate details of this photo were captured hundreds of miles above it.
Desert Dust Storm Over the Sahara
Contrary to popular belief, the Sahara is not the world’s largest desert; Antarctica is. The Sahara is massive enough though, clocking in at 3.6 million square miles. Here, the ISS snapped a shot of one of the dust storms that frequent the Sahara and that contribute to its ever-growing size.
The butterfly-shaped shadow is really a humongous, swirling cloud of dust and dirt.
Expedition 37 Crew Hanging Out
Expedition 37 began in May 2013, with crew members Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Mike Hopkins, Luca Parmitano, and Karen Nyberg, pictured here. They hang out in zero gravity after leaving their Expedition 36 crew members on their own station.
Gulf of Saint Lawrence
This gulf was under a layer of mile-thick ice until a mere 19,000 years ago. The infantile body of water is not premature in terms of the variety of nature it houses, however. Everything from freshwater fish to starfish and whales are found beneath the beautiful blue and white swirling ecosystem featured here.
This ISS photo captures the movement and beauty of the Canadian gulf, hinting at the vast forms of life a little beneath the surface.
Kate Rubins Sequencing DNA
Kate Rubins, cancer-biologist-turned-astronaut, is a Stanford graduate and absolute boss. She was chosen out of 3,500 applicants to study at NASA in order to bring more science to space and on her first mission she became the 60th woman in space.
In this photo, she is seen casually sequencing DNA and making history, again. Sequencing DNA in microgravity had never been done before Rubins’s contributions to NASA. Because of her work both on and off our planet, medicine is more advanced. She assisted in the development of Ebola therapies and created the first model of the small pox infection.