Bansi: Tropical cyclone seen from space.

Seriously Cool Photo of a Tropical Cyclone (With Lightning!) From Space

Seriously Cool Photo of a Tropical Cyclone (With Lightning!) From Space

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 18 2015 7:00 AM

The Flashing Eye of a Cyclone From Space

I’ve posted a lot of images of cyclones from space … but I have never seen anything like this!

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Tropical cyclone Bansi photographed by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

Photo by ESA/NASA

That is the view of the tropical cyclone Bansi, which has been blowing in the Indian Ocean, a few hundred kilometers east of the island of Mauritius, which is itself east of Madagascar. It looks like the storm is powering up some sort of weapon!

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The photo was taken by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti when the space station was still well to the side of the cyclone. What you’re actually seeing is a flash of lightning illuminating the eye wall of the storm. That’s incredible.

You can also see a thin green line over the horizon; that’s airglow, oxygen atoms energized by the Sun during the day, slowly releasing that energy at night. It happens in a relatively thin layer about 100 kilometers up. When you look across the Earth in this way you’re seeing through the thin sheet of glowing oxygen, across it, so the light can add up enough to see.

Cristoforetti also took another picture when the station was directly over the eye.

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Yegads.

Photo by ESA/NASA

That’s no less amazing than the other one; again, a lightning flash lights up the eye, but you can see it’s offset, in the dense and turbulent clouds in the eye wall. The stroke is bright enough to light up clouds for many kilometers away.

The cyclone is expected to weaken as it moves out into the open waters of the southern Indian Ocean to the south and east, happily away from Mauritius.

If you want to see more photos of cyclones from space—and you do—then here’s a list of some of my posts about them. Bonus: There’s science galore in these photos, and I do love to explain it. Hurricanes and typhoons are among the most dangerous and powerful events our planet has to offer, and while they can be terrifying to experience on the ground (and I’ve had my own share of that over the years), they are just as beautiful to behold from space.

Sam: I’m jealous you get this view. But I’m glad you shared it with us.

P.S. Follow her on Twitter, because she’s in space, and she’s cool.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!