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Earth from Above: 101 Stunning Images from Orbit

Amazing Aurora

Southern Lights from space

(Image credit: NASA/JSC )

From the International Space Station, the aurora seems to set the Earth alight with green fire. This photo, snapped by the Expedition 32 crew aboard the ISS on July 15, 2012, offers a stunning view of the aurora australis, or southern lights. (That's Canadarm2, a robot arm extending off the station, in the foreground.) The southern lights, and their cousin the northern lights, occur when particles from the sun hit atmospheric gases, exciting the gas molecules and creating the gorgeous, twisting colors that can be seen at high and low latitudes.

Saying Goodbye

Atlantis STS-135

(Image credit: NASA)

The STS-135 crew got its last glimpse of the International Space Station through the Space Shuttle Atlantis' windows on Tuesday, July 19. Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. EDT on July 21, marking the end of the space shuttle era. Atlantis will retire to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


Tropical storms

(Image credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters )

The NASA GOES-13 satellite captured a snapshot of three tropical storms (and a tropical wave) on July 22. Hurricane Dora is in the Pacific, while Bret and Cindy whirl in the Atlantic. Low #1, a tropical wave, has brought rain to parts of the Caribbean. None of the storms are expected to pose a major threat to land.

An Astronaut's View of Atlantis' Descent

Space Shuttle Atlantis

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/SS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center)

Blazing a tiny trail across the face of the Earth, the Space Shuttle Atlantis makes its final descent on July 21, 2011. An astronaut snapped this photo from the International Space Station, showing the ionized plasma plume created by Atlantis' descent through the atmosphere.

The greenish glow hovering over the planet is airglow, which occurs when molecules in the high atmosphere release energy at night that they absorbed from sunlight during the day.

— Stephanie Pappas

An Astronaut's View of Awe-Inspiring Irene

An astronaut photographs Hurricane Irene from space.

(Image credit: NASA)

High above the Earth from aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Ron Garan snapped this image of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the Caribbean on Aug. 22, 2011. As of Thursday, Aug. 25, Irene was expected to hug the East Coast, possibly making landfall near New York City over the weekend.

Hurricane Irene Slices Through Islands

Hurricane Irene damages the Outer Banks of North Carolina

(Image credit: NOAA Hurricane Irene Project)

Flood waters from Hurricane Irene breach North Carolina's Hatteras Island, cutting through Highway 12, the road connecting the island to the mainland. This photo, taken Aug. 28 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is part of a larger project to assess the damage Irene caused to the East Coast. The hurricane came ashore near Cape Lookout on North Carolina's Outer Banks on Aug. 27 before heading toward New Jersey and New York. [Read: How Barrier Islands Survive Storms]

Where in the World?

An astronaut photographs city lights at night.

(Image credit: ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center)

For astronauts looking down on Earth, city lights look much like stars dotting the sky. Can you guess what cities are lighting up the planet in this Aug. 10, 2011 astronaut photo?

If you guessed that you were looking at northwestern Europe, congratulations. London is the large bright spot in the lower left-hand corner; across the dark English Channel is Paris, near the center of the photograph. Brussels is the large dark orange area to the left of Paris, and smaller, brighter Amsterdam sits to Paris' left. Rounding out the spacebound tour of European cities is Milan, which is visible as a line of lights alongside the dark Alps in the upper right corner of the photo.

Hurricane Over Lake Michigan?

A mid-latitude cyclone over Lake Michigan in September.

(Image credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, the MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.)

This well-formed storm is reminiscent of one of the tropical cyclones that regularly bear down on the East and Gulf Coasts, so what's it doing over Lake Michigan?

Actually, this storm is what's known as a mid-latitude cyclone. These tempests are responsible for most of the nasty, stormy weather in the continental U.S., according to NASA. They're formed when a warm front from the south clashes with a cold front from the north. Bands of cold and warm air wrap around a center of low pressure, and the rising air in that low-pressure zone triggers the development of clouds and precipitation.

NASA's Aqua satellite captured this storm snapshot over Lake Michigan on Sept. 26.

Lights in the Night

A view of the U.S. from the International Space Station.

(Image credit: NASA)

Where on Earth are these city lights brightening up the night? Here's a hint: That green sliver is the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Make your guesses, and then scroll down …

If you guessed that you were looking at the United States, pat yourself on the back. And if you guessed the Midwest, congratulations! This is a view from the International Space Station taken in September 2011. The Northern Lights hover over Canada, while the largest bright spot near the center of the photo is Chicago (You can see Lake Michigan as a big dark spot bordering the city). The spidery-looking city below and to the right of Chicago is St. Louis. Way to the left of St. Louis is a small clump of lights: That's Des Moines, with Minneapolis-St. Paul above and to the left of it. The large blur of lights in the lower left-hand corner of the photo is Omaha, Nebraska.

The astronaut who snapped this photo also captured a weather event. Look above St. Louis and the dark, winding spot that is the little-populated Appalachian Mountains. You'll see a bright, almost bluish dot. That dot is almost certainly lightning from a storm on the East Coast.

It's Lonely Out In Space

Astronaut Bruce McCandless free-flies in orbit in 1984.

(Image credit: NASA)

This rocketman made it farther from his spacecraft than any astronaut before. On Feb. 12, 1984, astronaut Brice McCandless tested out a nitrogen jet-propelled backpack called the Manned Maneuvering Unit. As the space shuttle Challenger orbited hundreds of miles above Earth, McCandless flew 320 feet (97 meters) from the ship and hovered alone in the black of space.