The International Space Station is not only one of humanity’s greatest feats of engineering and intercontinental co-operation, it helps us peer at our planet in ways that wouldn’t be possible without its constant orbit.
Since its first inhabitants boarded the station in November 2000, 230 people from 18 countries have visited. At any one time, an international crew of six live and work onboard while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes.
Over the past 19 years, these crews, as well as cameras fitted to the station, have captured everything from star trails to lightning strikes, bright auroras and landmarks not visible from the ground. Here is a selection of the most awe-inspiring of these images.
Milky Way and lightning over the Pacific
This short-lens photograph of Earth’s nightlights was taken in August 2015 as the station flew over the Pacific Ocean and the island of Kiribati, south of Hawaii. The pattern of stars in the photo are part of our Milky Way galaxy, looking toward its centre, and are shown alongside dark, dense dust clouds. The colours framing the curvature of the Earth feature a mixture of green, orange and red layers of airglow. The bright light in the bottom right-hand region of the photo is a lightning flash inside an illuminated mass of clouds.
SpaceX Crew Dragon silhouetted against Earth’s horizon
Earlier this year, SpaceX carried out its first Demo-1 test flight of NASA's Commercial Crew Program to the International Space Station. On 2 March 2019, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying a test dummy – named Ripley after Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien – was flown to the ISS. The craft docked with the station’s Harmony module a day later delivering supplies and equipment before undocking and landing back on Earth on 8 March with Ripley intact. This image shows the craft silhouetted against Earth’s horizon. Demo-1 paves the way for the first manned flights to take place, expected to launch in November. SpaceX tried to mimic the conditions onboard to such an extent that Ripley was fitted with a full spacesuit.
Earth and the ISS captured in “space selfie”
During a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk in April 2019, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques took this “space selfie” in his helmet, managing to capture the curvature of the Earth as well as part of the International Space Station. The image is reflected off a thin layer of gold used on astronaut helmets to protect wearers from the Sun’s UV rays and extreme temperatures. During this spacewalk, Saint-Jacques and NASA astronaut Anne McClain fixed part of the Canadian-built robotic arm, known as Canadarm2, and installed cables to boost the strength of wireless communications coverage aboard the station.
Star trails captured over Earth on the ISS
From November 2011 until July 2012, flight engineer Don Pettit took incredible images of star trails while living on the International Space Station. Each of his star trail images consisted of time exposures of between ten and 15 minutes, made up from stacks of 30-second shots. This is because 30 seconds was the longest exposure possible of modern digital cameras at the time. Pettit would take multiple shots and use software to create these composites. It’s possible to capture star trails on Earth, by leaving your camera’s shutter open as the planet rotates, but astronauts are exposed (excuse the pun) to faster-evolving views given the station’s 90-minute orbit so the results are more striking.
Spacewalk over New Zealand
Backdropped by clouds above parts of New Zealand, astronauts Robert Curbeam Jr. (left) and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang are shown making adjustments to the exterior of the International Space Station during an extravehicular activity (EVA) mission in December 2006. During this spacewalk, which was Fuglesang’s first of five spacewalks, the pair replaced a video camera on the station’s trusses. The spacewalk lasted six and a half hours.
Lights of the Northern European cities
This nighttime shot, taken as the International Space Station orbited 258 miles above the English Channel, shows the lights of the northern European cities. Pictured clockwise from top right to bottom left, the brightest lights are those in London, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels.
Scandinavia and the Northern Lights at night
Another striking image, taken in April 2015, shows southern Scandinavia just before midnight under a full moon, with the curvature of Earth illuminated by a green aurora. The dark patches in the lower right are the Baltic Sea and the lights carve out the coastline of the Skagerrak and Kattegat seaway. The largest light clusters on this seaway are from Oslo and Copenhagen.
Southern Lights captured above southwest Australia
Astronauts onboard the International Space Station are treated to an average of 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours, as well as dazzling light shows from auroras caused when particles from solar storms interact with the magnetic field at the North and South poles. Different particles create different colours, with oxygen-producing green and red displays and nitrogen producing purple and blue light shows. In this image, particles of oxygen shine bright green as the ISS orbits 269 miles above the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia. This display is known as the Aurora Australis, or "Southern Lights" and provided a backdrop to Russia's Soyuz MS-12 crew ship and the Progress 72 resupply mission in June 2018.
Full moon over Guam
From Earth, we always see the same side of the Moon because of its synchronous rotation with our planet and our view of it – as to whether we see it as a half or full moon – depends on its position in orbit. In this image, astronauts on board the International Space Station captured an image of the full moon as the station orbited 254 miles above the Pacific Ocean northeast of Guam in June 2019.
The sun’s glint beams off the Celebes Sea
Part of the International Space Station’s solar array is shown as it soars 255 miles above Indonesia and captures the sun's glint beaming off the Celebes Sea in southeast Asia. The solar arrays, connected to the station by its truss structure, turn solar energy into electricity via thousands of cells made from purified chunks of silicon. When the station is in sunlight, approximately 60 per cent of the electricity being generated by the solar arrays is diverted to charging the station’s batteries. Then, when the station is in the shade, these batteries provide enough energy to power.
Earth's Limb on a starry night
The Earth’s limb, the name given to the atmosphere as it creates a “halo” along the planet’s curve, is seen in this image taken by an Expedition 47 crewmember in March 2016 on a starry night. One of the International Space Station’s solar arrays is seen in the foreground as the crew flew 258 miles above the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Australia.
Utah’s Great Salt Lake’s colours captured by the ISS
Beyond showcasing how the Earth looks from afar, the International Space Station has also revealed how our planet’s most striking geological features appear from space. For example, Utah's Great Salt Lake is seen here, captured as the station orbited 255 miles above the southwestern United States in June 2019. As its name suggests, the lake is heavily salinated and the concentration levels of salt in different parts of the lake give it its distinct colours. In particular, the line that divides the north from the south is the Lucin Cutoff, a series of trestles that were built as a railroad shortcut at the start of the century before being closed in the 1950s and replaced with a rock and dirt causeway. This causeway impedes the flow of water between the two sides of the lake and the only microbes that can survive in the higher salt levels of the north side are red and pink, resulting in the bright colour of the water.
Eye of Sahara
In this image, taken at an altitude of 255 miles as the International Space Station orbited above northwestern Mauritania, an Expedition 59 crewmember photographed the Richat Structure, also known as the Eye of the Sahara or the Eye of Africa. These rings, carved into the Saharan desert, are not visible from Earth because they stretch 25 miles across. In fact, scientists didn’t know the full scale of its existence until early space missions in the 1960s and there is still debate about what caused the structure.
Nile River Delta in Egypt pictured beneath the SpaceX Dragon resupply mission
As the space station flew 260 miles above the Nile River Delta in Egypt in August 2019, its external cameras caught the SpaceX Dragon ship docking with the International Space Station's Harmony module as part of the CRS-18 resupply mission. This mission delivered more than 5,000lbs of science and research equipment, crew supplies and vehicle hardware. It collected and returned a number of systems no longer needed onboard, such as an air quality monitor that needs to be refurbished.