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Earth from Above: 101 Stunning Images from Orbit

Crescent Clouds

Wave clouds off the coast of Pig Island in the Indian Ocean

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

Wave clouds form in the wake of  Île aux Cochons, or Pig Island, in the southern Indian Ocean. These unusual clouds form when winds run into the high summit of the island, pushing hot, moist air upward until the air cools and the moisture condenses into clouds. As the air mass descends past the summit, it hits alternating layers of moist and dry air, creating the wave-like cloud pattern seen in this astronaut photograph.

With its 2,543 foot (775 meter) volcanic summit,  Île aux Cochonsis a lonely place. Despite the name, it's not pigs that make their home here, but seabirds: The island is home to the world's largest King Penguin colony.

Our Colorful Planet

Earth from orbit.

(Image credit: NTsOMZ )

Earth takes on beautiful colors in this image created by a Russian weather satellite. The satellite, Elektro-L No.1, scans both visible and infrared wavelengths of light. Combining these images yields the colorful view of Earth seen above.

Psychedelic Space

A composite image of the ISS orbiting Earth.

(Image credit: NASA)

Space madness? Fortunately not — this is a composite photograph made from a series of images taken by a camera mounted on the International Space Station. By stacking long exposures, Expedition 31 Flight Engineer Don Petit turned the Earth into a brilliant blur and captured the circular movement of the stars.

Brilliant Color Flows From Glacier

The Colombian Glacier in a false-color image captured by Landsat 5 on May 30, 2011.

(Image credit: NASA)

The Columbia Glacier descends from an ice field 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) above sea level, down the flanks of the Chugach Mountains, and into a narrow inlet that leads into Prince William Sound in southeastern Alaska. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world.

This false-color image, captured by the Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument on Landsat 5, shows the glacier and the surrounding landscape on May 30, 2011. Snow and ice appears bright cyan, vegetation is green, clouds are white or light orange, and the open ocean is dark blue. Exposed bedrock is brown, while rocky debris on the glacier’s surface is gray.

A Hole in the Sky

A hole in the clouds near Tasmania caused by a high pressure system.

(Image credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response.)

It's ring around the high-pressure center in this image taken by NASA's Aqua satellite on June 5, 2012. High pressure near the surface caused this hole in the clouds off the coast of Tasmania, bringing sunny skies to an area 620 miles (1,000 km) across.

Where There's Smoke

The High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo.

(Image credit: NASA Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. )

A thick plume of smoke blows east from the High Park wildfire just west of Fort Collins, Colo. NASA's Aqua satellite snapped this shot of the fire at 2:30 p.m. MDT on Sunday (June 10), when the fire had consumed about 20,000 acres. By Monday afternoon, nearly 37,000 acres had gone up in smoke, and at least 100 structures had been destroyed. Firefighters had yet to get a handle on the blaze, which was likely sparked by a lightning strike.

Lonely Lyrid

Lyrid meteor viewed from space.

(Image credit: NASA/JSC/Don Pettit)

A single meteor streaks toward Earth in this image from the night of April 21, 2012. Astronaut Don Pettit snapped this photograph from his perch in the International Space Station (ISS) during the 2012 Lyrid meteor shower. Behind the meteor, city lights outline the shape of Florida and the eastern Gulf Coast. Cuba and the Florida Keys are to the right.

The White Marble

A satellite image of Earth from space centered on the Arctic.

(Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Suomi NPP)

In 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 took possibly the most famous picture of the Earth from space, which was dubbed "The Blue Marble." Since then, NASA has released many gorgeous images of our planet stitched together from satellite views. Usually, however, these Blue Marble images focus on the western or eastern hemisphere.

Not so this image, hereby dubbed "The White Marble." Using images from the Suomi NPP satellite, NASA put together this image of Earth from the top down. The icy Arctic appears amidst swirls of clouds, with Europe, Asia and northern Africa visible toward Earth's midsection.

Hole-y Clouds

Cloud vortexes over the Aleutian Islands

(Image credit: Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center, ISS015-E-9199)

Even when Earth is swathed in clouds, astronauts aboard the International Space Station get amazing views. Here, atmospheric forces create vortexes, punching holes in the cloud cover near the Aleutian Islands. The islands force the wind into eddies, creating these odd cloud formations photographed by an Expedition 15 crewmember. See more strange clouds in our gallery.

That's Space-y! Red Sprites & Lightning Flashes

a red sprite and lightning flash captured in an image by astronauts aboard the ISS

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory / JSC)

Glowing sky phenomena can make for beautiful photos. This one, captured by Expedition 31 astronauts aboard the International Space Station on April 30, 2012, reveals a red sprite and lightning flash. The photo was taken while the ISS traveled southeast from central Myanmar (Burma) to just north of Malaysia.

Red sprites are difficult to observe because they last for just a few milliseconds and occur above thunderstorms, so they are usually blocked from view on the ground by the very clouds that produce them. They send pulses of electrical energy up toward the edge of space (the electrically charged layer known as the ionosphere) instead of down to Earth’s surface. They are rich with radio noise, and can sometimes occur in clusters.

For decades, pilots reported seeing ephemeral flashes above storms, but it was not until the 1990s that scientists were able to verify the existence of these electrical discharges. A sprite was first photographed by accident from an airplane in 1989, and observers on the space shuttle captured several more images with low-light cameras in 1990 and in subsequent missions. Viewers on the ground can occasionally photograph sprites by looking out on a thunderstorm in the distance (often looking out from high mountainsides over storms in lower plains.)