Gorgeous Video Explains What Astronauts See at Night

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 4 2012 1:44 PM

Gorgeous Video Explains What Astronauts See at Night


How many of the world’s 193 countries (give or take) can you label on a map?

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

What if you were looking at them from space? That’s where it gets confusing.


That’s where this gorgeous new video comes in. As you fly over the planet—via stitched-together time-lapse images taken from the window of the International Space Station within the last year—NASA chief geoscientist Justin Wilkinson explains what you’re seeing (Texas, say). Watch:

When astronauts first go into space, Wilkinson says, they are often disoriented by the way the actual planet appears. “It looks so different from a map. You have no idea where you are. You have to slowly learn that,” he told me. “You start to learn your geography by how you rotate around the planet.”

As principal geoscientist, Wilkinson often sends messages to the astronauts, asking them to take pictures of this or that part of the planet. Though it may seem like we’ve explored Earth’s every nook and cranny, he says, they are actually learning new things constantly. For instance: There are a lot more examples of a geographical phenomenon called an inland delta or megafan—that is, deltas formed far from coastlines—than was once thought.

Wilkinson hopes to someday take these techniques to Mars. But for now, he hopes that videos like this one will help those of us who are grounded on Earth will “start to see the planet for the little alive ball it is, floating in space a long way from another planet. We may get to respect it a little more and be more careful with it.”

Which presidential candidate has the best space-exploration policy—Obama or Romney? Physicist Lawrence Krauss looks at their platforms.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.


America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?