Our view of Earth is, of course, from the ground up. And even when flying we don’t get to see our planet from such great heights that it changes our perspective. But NASA astronauts have that ability, and they don’t squander it. Instead, they have spent years capturing stunning photos of the Blue Marble from space and sharing their views with the rest of us. So, here are 40 of the most epic shots they’ve taken.
40. Earth as a dot
Most photos taken of Earth from another celestial body come from the Moon. But in March 2004 NASA captured an image from Mars thanks to its Exploration Rover Spirit. The above image is actually pieced together as a mosaic of several photos snapped by the vehicle’s panoramic camera. Interestingly, experts had to boost the contrast before our planet was even visible as it is here.
39. A typhoon brewing in the Pacific
A typhoon is the same as a hurricane – they’re both tropical cyclones. These natural occurrences typically form over tropical waters as clouds and storms swirl overhead. And this NASA photograph snapped from an Earth-focused satellite captured a massive one brewing in the Pacific Ocean in May 2020. For reference, the organization uses its outer space resources to track storms across the globe.
38. Fall leaves – from space
This image was captured by NASA’s Landsat satellite in October 2001 and shows the warm autumnal landscape of central Pennsylvania. The gentle rolling ridges of the Appalachian Mountains appear to change from orange to red to green, as the trees growing atop them change color. Meanwhile, the bright blue Susquehanna River snakes through a perfect fall scene.
37. Dust clouds crossing the Red Sea
Khor Baraka may not be the most well-known river in Egypt, but its delta is the source of many dust clouds that breeze across the country. The stretch of land has ample exposed clay and sand which easily launches into the air. This arid plume – captured here by a NASA astronaut in June 2013 – originated on the banks and dramatically spread out and over the Red Sea.
36. First-ever snap of the Earth and Moon in one frame
Nasa’s Voyager 1 – in flight more than seven million miles away from the Earth – took the first photo of its kind in September 1977. The image included the blue planet and its moon in a single frame. Experts had to adjust the picture so that both celestial bodies were visible, since the Earth is multiple times brighter than the Moon.
35. North and South America by night
We can explore humankind’s creations on land, but viewing them from space gives us an even more impressive picture of how we have changed the planet. This image – a composite of snaps from April and October 2012 – is a stunning map of where people have gathered and brightened this half of the globe.
34. A wooded oasis in the Sahara
The Sahara Desert stretches over one-tenth of the African continent – its scorching heat creating an unforgiving landscape. But it’s not all hot sand and shade-free dunes. This NASA image from 2015 shows the Sahel, a patch of relatively wet woodland that grows in the center of an otherwise arid swath of land.
33. Hurricane Andrew makes landfall in Louisiana
At first, this image looks like a regular old picture of the Earth – save for a bit of color manipulation. But look closer at the Gulf of Mexico and you’ll see the swirling clouds of Hurricane Andrew, which made landfall in Louisiana in August 1992. Luckily, the startling shot didn’t precede a raging storm; Andrew had downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached the Pelican State.
32. Salt ponds in Western Australia
These curved chunks of land floating in the blue waters are typical geographic features of Australia’s western coastline, which borders the Indian Ocean. Further inland, though, is an even more striking feature – albeit a human-made one. Very rigid and angular-looking salt extraction ponds are seen from this 2015 NASA picture glistening and standing out in the reddish water.
31. The Great Lakes on ice
The Great Lakes cover a whopping 94,600 square miles and they make up the world’s largest freshwater system. That’s because all five of them are connected by rivers and lakes between them. And of course, satellites allow researchers to see all of the activity going on at the Great Lakes. This image – shot in January 2015 – revealed that nearly 30 percent of them were covered by ice in the midst of winter.
30. Earth peeking out from behind the Moon
NASA has dated this image of the Earth to “sometime in 1969” on their Flickr page. What they do know for sure is that it was taken on the Apollo 11 mission – the excursion which sent men to the Moon. And the astronauts completed that goal, as evidenced by this photo clearly snapped from the lunar body.
29. Comma clouds and a phytoplankton bloom
The water’s not always icy in the Gulf of Alaska. In springtime, sunlight and added nutrients make it perfect for phytoplankton blooms which feed on the rays and multiply. In this 2014 image, you can see the undersea clouds of microscopic organisms – they make up the dark green water just off the state’s coast. The overhead comma-shaped clouds don’t have anything to do with the blooms, but they were low-pressure systems that might’ve devolved into cyclone-style wind circulation.
28. Clouds and sunbeams over the sea
The Space Shuttle Discovery completed its first mission in 1984 and, since then, it has helmed more than 30 successful forays into space. This peaceful photo was taken aboard the Space Shuttle orbiter 15 years later. It shows clouds hanging and sunlight glistening over the Indian Ocean.
27. Mexico’s mysterious red sprites
It’s easy to pinpoint a bolt of lightning in a photo, but you might not be able to find the red sprite bursting through this frame. Both light sources have some features in common; namely, they’re both so-called electrical discharges that appear during thunderstorms. However, sprites don’t come with the white-hot heat of lightning. And, of course, they look red – see the top left portion of this 2015 picture for proof.
26. Saltwater meets fresh in Madagascar
This 2020 NASA image may look like the outline of a giant squid, but it’s actually the joining of two bodies of water on Madagascar’s northwestern coast. Here, the salt-laden Mozambique Channel melds with the freshwater Betisobka River and creates the Bombetoka Bay. All of the little islands and sandbars created by the joining of two sediment-filled bodies of water give this stunning landscape the look of a huge tentacled mollusc.
25. The Southern Lights
The Northern Lights get plenty of attention, but the skies that shine over the Southern Hemisphere are pretty awe-inspiring, too. International Space Station astronauts captured this glowing image of the aurora australis in September 2011. Energy from the Sun sparks these stunning light shows, as it activates the charged particles that can’t escape our planet’s magnetic field.
24. An iceberg casually moving into Greenland
Watching an iceberg slowly creep toward the shore would scare people living in just about any other country. But such visits are normal in places like Baffin Bay in the northwestern corner of Greenland. So, this 11-million-ton shard – which showed up in 2018 – probably didn’t ruffle any locals’ feathers. But it did create a shocking photo of a frozen mass hovering over the bayside village.
23. Methane emitting from the globe
You probably already know that methane’s bad for the planet – it’s second on the list of gases that most commonly contribute to greenhouse warming. As we can see in this 2020 image, NASA scientists used multiple data sets to paint a picture of where methane gas emits from. This is so they can understand how it factors into climate-changing systems damaging the planet.
22. The edge of the Earth
That white orb dangling in the distance isn’t a smudge on the photo. No, it’s actually the moon, which has a diameter of 2,158.8 miles. It managed to look so small because it was far from the crew members on the International Space Station. They snapped this serene photo of our planet’s edge in August 2013 while its celestial body glowed in the background.
21. The first frame of a time-lapse Earth movie
The Galileo spacecraft launched into the atmosphere to capture a 500-frame movie of the Earth, which would cover a 25-hour span of its orbit. This 1990 photo is the first of those frames – a composite pushed through violet, green and red filters to create a vivid image of the planet. If you look closely, you can see South America at the center, while sunlight brightens up frigid Antarctica beneath it.
20. Storm Isaac at midnight
By now, you’ve probably realized that NASA satellites can capture startling images of storm cells as they barrel across the globe. This one – which features 2012’s Tropical Storm Isaac – is made even eerier by the fact that it was taken just after midnight. As such, we can see the city lights glowing as danger looms in the distance.
19. Icelandic phytoplankton bloom
It’s hard to believe that phytoplankton stand at the bottom of the marine food chain. Incredibly, their blooms can cover hundreds of square miles with the right sun and water conditions. In this case, the microorganisms flourished just off of Iceland in swirling shades of teal, turquoise and green. It may not look like much from the 2014 satellite image, but this particular phytoplankton explosion covered 80 percent of the ocean of the northeastern side of the country.
18. The Western Hemisphere in the dark
In 2016 NASA gathered images to show how the planet reflects, radiates and absorbs light. It was tough work, considering the moon could brighten certain spots differently, and clouds, precipitation, vegetation or aerosols also have the ability to mar the images. In the end, though, they came away with clear composites of the planet – including this stunning shot of the western hemisphere.
17. A yolky Bolivian lake
This 2015 photo may resemble a badly poached egg, but it’s actually Laguna Colorado – a lake high in Bolivia’s portion of the Andes Mountains. And there’s little atmospheric haziness to cloud pictures of it, because the body of water sits at 14,100 feet above sea level. As a result, we can clearly see the lake’s reddish algae blooming in the otherwise salty water.
16. Antarctic peaks peeking through the clouds
NASA doesn’t just fly into space to complete its missions – Operation IceBridge, for one, had a team of scientists surveying the Arctic and its supply of polar ice. They set off on their first round of study in 2014, and the flight inspired scientist Michael Studinger to grab a camera. He captured this gorgeous photo of sunlight rising over mountains, and the moon dangling above it all.
15. Sediments as seen with infrared lighting
The Terra satellite launched into space in December 1999, and NASA expected her to operate for roughly six years. Well, the device outlasted that prediction by more than a decade, which meant that Terra could snap this photo in 2007. The psychedelic image actually shows all of the sediment layers that make up Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains. Different infrared bands were used to delineate the ancient limestone, gypsum and claystone that formed the African range roughly 80 million years ago.
14. Earth releasing some pent-up heat
This sizzling shot of the Earth was also logged by the Terra satellite in September 2001. The picture shows thermal energy emitting from the planet, but don’t be alarmed; this process is necessary to keep our planet at the proper temperature. If it absorbed all of the sun’s radiation, it’d get to be as hot as the giant star, and we don’t have enough air-conditioning to deal with that.
13. Wildfire raging from space
Astronaut Andrew Morgan shot this photo of the 2019 California wildfires from the International Space Station. Interestingly, remote NASA satellites orbiting the Earth are often the first to know about remote blazes. They send data to land-based managers who can hopefully handle the flames before they get out of hand.
12. Cloudy skies just about everywhere
It can’t be sunny and clear every day, and this NASA satellite image proves it. This picture was snapped in July 2005 and it shows clouds swirling over much of the planet – save for portions of Africa, the Middle East, the United States’ west coast and the very center of South America.
11. Sarychev Peak explodes
Sarychev Peak sits on Matua Island, which is one of Russia’s Kuril Islands that are found near Japan. People have recorded activity from the volcano since 1765. And the peak had a major explosion in more recent years – as captured here in June 2009. Apparently, activity began picking up again eight years later.
10. A very bright international border
Not all country borders have lights to keep the lines clear at night time. But the orangey bulbs that illuminate the divide between Pakistan and India are so distinctive they can be seen from space, as we can see from this 2015 shot. Interestingly, it’s one of the very few places on the planet where it’s possible to pinpoint a boundary in the dark.
9. Aerosol aurora over Earth
This image is beautiful – until you realize what it’s showing. NASA’s Earth-focused satellites monitor the aerosol droplets lingering in the air at any given time. This 2018 image shows particles released by smoke in red, dust in purple and cyclone-whipped saltwater in blue. Aerosols also emit from vehicles, factories and other human-made sources, which fall under the red-colored layer in the processed photo.
8. Starry ice in the Arctic
A NASA photo of stars doesn’t sound too original – until you realize that you’re not actually looking at a celestial body. Instead, this 2010 picture shows floating bits of sea ice that look like glittering stars against a deep-sea ocean backdrop. The ice begins as a crystal layer atop the ocean water, and it eventually thickens into hard slabs that are obviously visible from space.
7. Total eclipse of the sun
The Apollo 12 crew had big shoes to fill – the previous mission had become the first to land on the Moon four months prior to their journey into space. Luckily, the second 1969 lunar trip was also a success, too. And on the way home, one of the astronauts got to see a solar eclipse, which occurred when the Earth moved right in between the Sun and the spaceship.
6. An opening in the ozone layer
An Antarctica-based British scientist discovered a hole in the ozone layer in 1985 – a finding corroborated by NASA research. Damaging ultraviolet radiation can make its way in and hurt both plants and animals without this protective coat around the planet. This 1998 rendering shows the areas with the lowest amount of protective ozone in purple. And it highlights the layer’s massive opening, which hangs over Antarctica.
5. Snow drifts and the frigid Dnieper River
Astronaut Thomas Pesquet snapped this photo in February 2017 from the International Space Station and penned a caption to go with it. According to NASA’s website, he wrote, “Winter landscapes are also magical from the International Space Station: this river north of Kiev reminds me of a [Katsushika] Hokusai painting.” Indeed, the curling strokes of the snow drifts do mimic the Japanese artist’s brushwork.
4. An astronaut in front of his home planet
The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 marked the last time that the NASA program landed on the moon. For his part, astronaut Harrison Schmitt got an incredible photo to remember his step onto the outer space rock. Behind him and the American flag you can see a bit of the Earth off in the distance.
3. The eye of Hurricane Dorian
This is probably the most daunting of all the storm photos on our list. It shows the eye of Hurricane Dorian, the calm in the center of a category five storm that went on to devastate the Bahamas. Astronaut Nick Hague knew this and penned a poignant caption when he shared it via Twitter in September 2019. He wrote, “You can feel the power of the storm when you stare into its eye from above.”
2. Blue Marble
The Apollo 17 crew were the last astronauts to walk on the Moon. But they also made history when they snapped this iconic photo of the Earth dubbed “Blue Marble.” They did so in the early 1970s, when many people began to care about the planet. The serene shot showed that the third rock from the sun was worth saving – and it still is. As such, the image has long been considered one of the most iconic in the history of photo-taking.
1. A shimmering aurora and city lights
The International Space Station crew has a lot of work to do – and yet, they always seem to find the time to snap incredible photos of our planet. This one was captured in June 2015 and looks like something out of a science-fiction film. There’s a red, glowing aurora radiating from the planet, while city lights sparkle on Earth and stars twinkle in space.