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The Night Pass
iss018e029165 -- Astronaut Sandra Magnus

Astronaut Sandra Magnus peers out a window in the Zvezda service module and takes pictures of the Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

It is very easy to get busy up here and forget to “stop and smell the roses” as it were. (I think that is probably true for all of us everywhere!) So after dinner and before bedtime tonight I finally stopped and took a moment to watch the world go by during a night pass. It seems like it has been a while since I have done this. There are always excuses…other things that have to get done, e-mails to write, feet to warm up, too tired, there is always another day...blah, blah, blah. But I put my foot down, figuratively speaking, and took the time.

We were passing up through the Atlantic going north across Africa and Europe and arcing down through Asia to come out east of Australia and New Zealand into the Pacific. I do not know exactly where we were but it was already night when I positioned myself at the docking compartment window. I think it was the one facing more starboard. I always get myself mixed up when I go into that module; I can never easily find the hatch again. Even though the lights in the docking compartment were off, reflections from the lights in the SM and FGB interfered with the view so I had to put my hands up around my glasses and then wait for my eyes to adjust.

I am going to try to paint a picture in words of what I saw. Close your eyes and imagine yourself here on ISS with me looking out of the docking compartment window. You are positioned so the Earth is passing by below and you can see the horizon as well with the night sky behind it. Here is what you see:

It is completely night. There are thunderstorms across Africa and lightning is everywhere; bright flashes are going cloud to cloud illuminating the clouds as it arcs from one to the other. It is a private fireworks show. The storm is large and very spread out and at any moment you see 4 or 5 flashes occurring at one time, each one only lasting a moment. The colors range from something orange-ish to blue-white. Some are more like balls of light while others have that characteristic streak shape that you can observe on Earth. It goes on for several minutes. Occasionally a city goes by with lights shining brightly against the backdrop of flashing pulses of light. The cities come in all shapes, sizes and colors and light patterns. Some cities have clouds over them and all that can be seen is a haze of light. For the cities with clear skies, street patterns are apparent - outlined by streetlights. Some cities have very bright orange lights that stand out as beacons. The thunderstorms have finally passed by but still the Earth remains illuminated as the ISS continues to fly over densely populated areas. Population centers are easy to see at night; there are cities all around. Coastlines go by and you can tell because of the outline in city lights.

iss006e28030 -- The Large Magellanic Cloud

The Large Magellanic Cloud was photographed from the space station during Expedition 6. Photo Credit: NASA

The night sky, the heavens, though is what really catches the eye. Even though the Earth’s horizon is dark, light provided by the clouds and the city lights reflecting off of the clouds, provides enough illumination to discern the difference between the Earth and space. The night sky is inky black against the night horizon of the Earth. In the night sky, though, sparkle uncounted points of light, some white, some red, some orange, all of different sizes. They are everywhere. The Milky Way is clearly evident. It rises up from behind the Earth like a glowing white path leading off into the distance, inviting you to follow. The stars surrounded the Earth and wrap around her horizon - a blanket of light illustrating that we are not alone. You are swimming in a sea of beautiful lights that can only be seen in the dark. As you gaze at the multitude of points glittering in the night, it is hard to imagine that each one is a world or worlds or stars like our sun. They are so remote and seem so tiny. The vastness of space is truly evident as you watch the Earth turn slowly beneath. It is awe inspiring and overwhelming all at once and oh, so beautiful!

The illumination on the Earth changes depending on whether the Station flies over a city or not, but the inky dark curtain of the night sky remains and the twinkling stars do not change. There are so many. Every now and then it is possible to see a satellite in the distance; a blinking red light moving faster than an airplane and in a higher orbit. They pass by quickly.

You stay at the window spell-bound as you pass by in the night. For that is what the ISS is doing - it is passing through the night, unaffected and untouched, merely observing the play of darkness across the planet. As the terminator approaches the Station catches the sun’s rays first. That is how you know that you approach the dawn. The solar arrays start to glow faintly red, then orange, then bright white as they capture the first light of the sun coming up over the horizon. It is still dark below, even darker, and the night sky, with its twinkling diamonds, disappears as the brightness of the sun reflecting off of the arrays completely erases any other views.

Thus, right before dawn there is total black and as you look out the window it is as if neither the Earth nor the heavens are there. You just exist, floating in an endless sea of black with one bright light, the sun, illuminating the way. Nothing beyond the light exists. It only lasts a moment, though, as the sun rises higher over the nearing horizon. The Earth starts to pick up some of the rays at last and reappears out of the darkness awash in a faint gray color. Drawing closer you can notice that any high clouds in the atmosphere glow orange or red as they too find the morning sun. It is possible to see the terminator as you cross it. The grey of dawn gives way to the bright blues and whites of day that are so distinctive of our water planet. Looking back in the direction from whence you came, the darkness of night is still noticeable. Only looking forward does the day shine clearly. Soon the night is gone as the Space Station continues on its never-ending trek across the planet. The heavens are now just a dark velvety curtain against the brilliant colors of Earth. No stars are visible. They are there, though, waiting for the night which will come in another 45 minutes or so, to show themselves again.