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    NASA's Most Mind-Blowing Photos of the Earth at Night

    Written by

    Fruzsina Eördögh


    When NASA shared the photo above of New York City taken from the International Space Station, influential Twitter types from the United StatesIreland, the Netherlands, Spain and the world over were moved by it. Seeing the evidence of our existence standing out in the darkness is a powerful image, and it's really only possible from space.

    When astronauts traveled to the Moon in the 60s and 70s and looked back at the Earth–made small and beautiful,  swimming in a sea of black–they were profoundly, psychologically affected, to the point that it was given a name: “the Lunar Effect” (not to be confused with Transylvanian effect). Perhaps this feeling–of being overcome by the vastness of space as well as the triumph of human civilization–is what awes us about satellite images of cities at night. 

    NASA has been keeping track of Earth’s cities at night since the mid-90s, when it first mapped out the permanent lights on the planet’s surface through its Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. Actual digital photographs taken by astronauts of cities at night, however, are a more recent endeavor. There are a wealth of them around NASA's various sites, but let's take a peek at some that stand out.

    First, a photo of the city of Chicago, wrapping around the tip of Lake Michigan, as seen from the International Space Station:

    Via NASA

    The newer American cities love their neat grids. Los Angeles, the city of highways, has a startlingly organized grid:

    Via NASA

    Istanbul, meanwhile, is literally too old school for such a grid:

    Via NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

    Landlocked cities built around rivers tend to spiral out like electric organisms, more spider web than grid-like. Here is London:

    Via NASA

    and here is Budapest:

    Via Chris Hadfield

    Cairo, Alexandria, and smaller cities built along the Nile together look like a blooming flower with a small leaf, which I believe is the city Faiyum:

    Via NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

    Tokyo, meanwhile, emits a green light–as do most of Japanese cities, actually–as it still uses mercury-vapor lamps:

    Via NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

    Taking these photos the Internet loves actually required some DIY engineering from the crew on the International Space Station. Because the station is traveling around 17,000 miles per hour, the photos taken by astronauts on the ISS kept coming out blurry. Sharp photos of cities in space didn’t actually happen until 2002, when astronaut Don Pettit built “barn-door tracker” from spare parts he found on the International Space Station that manually cancels out orbital motion.

    Are those gorgeous photos still not enough? The 10 minute NASA-guided video tour below of the Earth’s cities at night is worth a watch, although it's too bad Canadian astronaut, ISS habitant, and noted space photog Chris Hadfield isn't doing the narrating.