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Earth from Above: 101 Stunning Images from Orbit

Origami Earth

The first view of Earth from NASA's VIIRS satellite.

(Image credit: NASA’s NPP Land Product Evaluation and Testing Element.)

From 512 miles (824 kilometers) above Earth, the NASA Visible Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) beamed back its first complete global image on Nov. 24, 2011. VIIRS images the surface of the planet in long wedges, creating this surreal view of Earth as origami.

VIIRS is now snapping preliminary images, but when engineers get it calibrated for full operation, the satellite will measure everything from ocean temperatures to clouds to the location of fires.

A New Island Is Born

A new island forms in the Red Sea.

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.)

Until late this month, the Red Sea north of Rugged Island was glassy and clear — and then a new island emerged almost overnight. Yes, that smoking mass of land above is an infant isle, formed by a volcanic eruption. Fishermen off the coast of Yemen witnessed lava fountains 90 feet (30 meters) tall on December 19, 2011; by December 23, what had once been unbroken water surface was now a new chunk of land.

The plume in the photo, captured by NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite, is likely a mix of volcanic ash and water vapor. The new island is part of the Zubair Group, a line of islands arising from a shield volcano under the Red Sea. In this area, the Red Sea Rift, the African and Arabian tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart, and new ocean crust regularly forms.

Ocean's 8

A phytoplankton bloom makes a figure 8

(Image credit: ESA)

A brilliant blue figure eight decorates the ocean as if someone painted it there. But this isn't man's work — the phenomenon is caused by a phytoplankton bloom coloring the water in the South Atlantic about 379 miles (600 km) east of the Falkland Islands.

The Earth-observing satellite Envisat captured this image of the algal bloom on Dec. 2, 2011. Satellites with ocean color sensors can even tell the species of the plankton from space, by analyzing the shade of the algae's chlorophyll pigment.

Intense Ice

Satellite image of Breidamerkurjokull glacier in Iceland.

(Image credit: DigitalGlobe)

Can you guess the name of this glacier? Get ready, because it's a mouthful. This is the Breidamerkurjokull glacier in Iceland, as seen from space in September 2010. As immense as it is, the glacier is only an outlet glacier for an ever larger river of ice, the Vatnajökull glacier.

Blue Marble 2.0

Earth from space, a "blue marble" image.

(Image credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring)

This gorgeous image is the most up-to-date "blue marble" photo of our home planet, the latest in a long line of color images of Earth that date back to the Apollo space missions. The original "blue marble" shot was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. Today, satellites are snapping some of the most spectacular photos of Earth. This new image was taken by Suomi NPP, NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite. It's a composite of many images of the planet's surface taken on Jan. 4, 2012.

A View from the Top

Lights of western Europe from space taken by the ISS crew.

(Image credit: NASA)

Orbiting high above Earth, astronauts on the International Space Station snapped this shot of cities below on Jan. 22, 2012. Any guesses which cities they caught lighting up the night?

If you pegged this scene in western Europe, congratulations! Lights from Belgium and the Netherlands are visible in the bottom center of the image, with the British Isles partially obscured by the ISS solar array panels at left. The other piece of visible ISS hardware is Canadarm2, a remote manipulator for the space station.

Icy Streets Above

Cloud streets in the Bering Sea by Russia

(Image credit: NASA images courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. )

Long linear "avenues" of clouds form over the Bering Sea off of Russia in this satellite image captured on Jan. 4, 2012. These formations, known as "cloud streets," occur when air blows over ice on land and then travels over warmer ocean water, leading to parallel cylinders of spinning air. On the upper edges of these cylinders, clouds form, while skies stay clear on the downward side. Winds warp the cloud streets, resulting in the curves seen over open sea.

Earth's Beautiful Backside: Blue Marble 2.0

The back of Blue Marble 2.0 showing Africa, the Middle East and India

(Image credit: NASA/NOAA)

Bowing to popular demand, NASA has released the flip side of its newest "Blue Marble" image of Earth, revealing Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. The original Blue Marble photo of earth was snapped from about 28,000 miles (45,062 kilometers) away from Earth by Apollo 17 astronauts. If Earth were the size of a basketball, that would put the photographer about 30 inches (76 centimeters) away from the planet.

Blue Marble 2.0, on the other hand, is a satellite creation. The Suomi NPP satellite orbits 512 miles (824 km) over Earth. On our imaginary basketball, the satellite would rotate only five-eighths of an inch (1.5 cm) away. NASA scientists stitch together images taken from multiple passes by Suomi, creating a zoomed-out image of Earth as it would appear from 7,918 miles (12,743 km) away.

Glacier's Loose Tooth

The Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica.

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team)

Three giant rifts meet on the Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica. Sixteen percent of the East Antarctica Ice Sheet drains through this ice shelf on its way toward the sea. The Amery deposits ice in the sea through the process of iceberg calving, a slow cycle (the last major calving event on Amery took place in the 1960s).

This satellite image, though, is of the western edge of the ice sheet's "loose tooth," a giant iceberg that has been gradually pulling away from the main sheet for decades. (The glacier doesn't actually cut off abruptly in two straight lines on either side — that is simply the border of the satellite's photograph.) If and when the loose tooth comes out, it's likely to be impressive: The last Amery ice calving event released an ice island 140 kilometers

First Views of Earth from Above

Photograph of Florida taken by John Glenn during first orbit.

(Image credit: NASA Photograph by John Glenn.)

Fifty years ago this week, astronaut John Glenn snapped this picture of the Florida peninsula during his historic orbit of the Earth. Glenn was the first American to travel this orbit. On that day, Feb. 20, 1962, he circled the world three times, observing four sunsets, fires and a dust storm in Africa and, of course, home sweet home. Glenn took some of the first photographs of the Earth from above as seen by human eyes.

"I have the Cape [Cape Canaveral] in sight down there," Glenn told mission controllers. "It looks real fine from up here."