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Sandra Magnus' Journal
Our Beautiful Planet

ISS018-E-010646 -- Sandra Magnus

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, Expedition 18 flight engineer, is pictured among stowage containers in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Well, I have been here for almost a month and finally things have slowed down enough that I am getting to spend time at the window occasionally. We do get Earth observation targets every day from the ground. These targets are chosen for science reasons so that scientists on Earth can study the changes in our planet over the years. When you think about it humans have been taking pictures in space for 50 years now—small on the scale of the age of the planet and the types of changes that occur, but still long enough to have gained some understanding of the Earth and her cycles. Nevertheless, these are popular moments in our schedule because it gives us a legitimate reason to stop what we are doing and run (float!) to the window and take pictures.

One of the more frequent questions that we get when we come back from space (besides, “How DO you go to the bathroom up there?”) is, “What does the Earth look like from orbit?” It is actually hard to come up with the appropriate adjectives to adequately describe the beautiful ball that is our planet. You hear often “magnificent,” “beautiful,” “serene,” and “warm.” The view is all of this and more. And the nature of the view you get changes with which window that you look out.

Most of our windows face nadir, which is usually directly down towards the Earth. They are the size of portholes you might find on a ship, maybe a foot across give or take a little. This means that you can look directly down and maybe angle out a bit to look around, but if you pass something and it is off to the side, you cannot see it and definitely not photograph it because the cameras do not have that kind of off-angle capability. The best windows to take photos from, especially with the larger lenses, is in the Service Module, and when there is a good day pass over an interesting area all three of us will be down there glued to a window with our cameras. There is also a nadir window in the US Lab and I plan on spending an evening with the lights out in the Lab, looking out the window and hoping to catch some thunderstorms in a night pass. It will be like having my own private fireworks show.

The Russian docking compartment, the Pirs module, has two windows, one facing in the aft direction and the other more forward along the axis of the Station. The forward facing window provides a great view of the Shuttle docked to the front end of the Station when it is here. From here you can get shots along the horizon. Don Pettit had a camera set up in one of these windows taking photos on five minute intervals the whole time they were docked. I am sure he got some beautiful pictures!

New to the Station since I have been here last, are the two port-facing windows in the Japanese Lab, Kibo. These are great windows for viewing the horizon, very large and clear and you can see sunset and sunrise approaching. I have not spent as much time at these windows as I should and it is on my list. Unfortunately, when STS-127 arrives next summer and brings the Japanese Exposed Facility, which is a platform that will be installed on the port side of Kibo, the wonderful view from these windows will be blocked.

As I mentioned, from each window you can get a different impression of our planet. Out of the Kibo windows you can see the curve of the horizon and get a sense of the majesty of our planet as the bright blue of the ocean and the white puffy clouds are clearly visible against the blackness of space. We are a water planet. Most of the time we fly over water and from Kibo you see all shades of blue and can clearly see the atmosphere thin out as the reflected color fades away from bright blue to non-existence. Out of the Service Module windows you look straight down to the Earth. When we fly over water it is almost like looking at a very blue sky. I look out and see unrelenting, unbroken blue with white clouds superimposed on it, just like what you may see on a bright day with clouds roaming by. It feels like some kind of surreal mirror image, that maybe I am just on the other side of the sky from you, located in my own place, and if I punch through, I could see everyone. But, it is merely the ocean. When I rein in my imagination I notice the shadows of the clouds on the water and realize that it is not the sky I am looking at, but our vast oceans.

When we go over land it is possible to see all kinds of textures, colors, and features. When we take high magnification photos of mountains, deserts, forests, even populated areas, it is like some kind of abstract work of art - lines, colors, angles, swirls all forming their own distinct patterns. Often when you look at pictures from space it is hard to tell what you are looking at for this very reason. There is a lot going on!

My favorite things to look at and photograph are islands and coral reefs in the deep ocean. These areas are like pearls dropped against a dark blue background. You can see the depth changes in the water very clearly and even the stark contrast of white sand beaches is very visible. The dark blues fade to lighter blues, then aqua, green-blues and finally greens to white as you hit the land. The poor photography people at NASA are going to have a lot of these types of photos to wade through before I come home, I am afraid…

I hope I was able to help answer the question, “What does our Earth look like from space,” but I am afraid that mere words do not do justice to the beauty of our planet!