Claire de lune

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2010 7:00 am

I’ve been to France once, and only for a short time (basically, driving across the Large Hadron Collider site which straddles Switzerland and France, and only then to eat at a restaurant). I’d love to go and spend more time… especially when I see as lovely a view of L’hexagone as this one:


[Click to engrandenate.] C’est magnifique! C’est belle! It looks like a beach picture, the Moon shining down on the coastline, clouds gently wafting over the horizon…

Hey, wait a second. That isn’t a picture taken from the beach! That’s taken from space!

Oui. This shot, taken from the International Space Station, is looking southwest at France (and a little bit of Italy), but from several hundred kilometers above it. It was taken at nearly midnight on April 28. The view is not straight down, but at an angle; about 60° from straight down, or 30° down from horizontal (if I’ve done the math correctly; the law of cosines was a little tricky for this one, but I got the data from the NASA site). At the moment it was taken, the center of the picture was about 650 km (400 miles) away from the ISS.

I love this picture! What you think at first is the Moon is actually moonlight reflecting off the water of the Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean between France and Italy. Corsica can be seen to the upper left. Also visible are Marseille (to the right), Lyons (at the bottom) and Torino in Italy to the left (bonus astronomy goodness: a decade ago, Torino hosted a meeting for astronomers, who concocted the Torino Scale of how dangerous an Earth-buzzing asteroid is). Since it was midnight, the lights of the cities glow softly from this distance. You can also see the gentle blue reflected moonlight off snow-capped Alps in the center, interspersed with the light cloud cover.

There is a lot we can learn from observing our home planet from space, but perhaps the most important — and the one with the most lasting impact — is just how beautiful it is.

P.S. I was listening to Debussy’s "Claire de Lune" as I wrote this, and when it ended, went right to "Prelude a L’Apres Midi d’un Faune". C’est vrai!

Crédit d’image: NASA

MORE ABOUT: France, ISS, Italy

Comments (31)

  1. terryp

    that’s a pretty ugly amount of light pollution. :

  2. Morbid Florist

    You forgot Switzerland! Lower left corner should be Geneve…

    I can almost see my house from up here!

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    C’est tres magnifique la belle France. :-)

    Merci beacoup Internationale Celestie l’estatione ! :-)

    (And if you think my French is bad you should hear my German – I spent one night at a German club wishing everyone “good naked” instead of “good night” as I thought I was saying. Apparently its all in the pronunciation. 😉 )

  4. That’s taken from space? Wow, for whatever reason the earth looks closer to ISS than I naively expected. (At first I thought it was taken from something like a military spy plane flying higher than the typical commercial flight.) Or maybe they zoomed in. :)

  5. Morbid Florist

    @Messier: The ISS is called “Station spatiale internationale” in French. Those most of the people I’ve heard talking about it just say the english name, or ISS. They pronounce it “Eee-Ess-Ess”. Isn’t that cute? :)

    And if you think your German is bad, I had a supervisor who taught some of his guys how to pick up ladies in German. “Ich bin schwol”. Yeah, that was funny. :)

  6. Robert

    A friend is Koeran, he taught another how to properly greet his mother who was coming n for a special occassion

    English speaking friend practiced, it was drummed into him how important it was to be proper.

    The big day came, the greeting was spoken with great deference, Mom cracked up.

    “Hello, my name is xxxx, I have a very small penis” is, apparently, comedy gold the world over.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    5. Morbid

    ,,,or, as my German father used to say “Zo fil flish und kina kartuffle”. Though I’m sure my spelling is anything but accurate, it translates roughly as “All that meat and no potatoes”, low German slang for a lean, mean, fighting machine(snark).

    I still remember Warner von Brauns description of an atom bomb as “dot ear splitting lauden boomer” or the H bomb as “Dot Greaten biggen ear splitting lauden boomer”.

    Fun with other folks language. We should try this in Hindi,,,

    GAry 7

  8. Charles Boyer

    “That’s taken from space? Wow, for whatever reason the earth looks closer to ISS than I naively expected.”

    The camera outfits on the ISS-NL have a fairly nice array of zoom lenses, but in this case it may have been post-processing that made it look very close.

  9. Grizzly

    A little bit more and they would have had Montpellier. A bit of heaven on earth.

  10. Ari

    Huh, this must be like one of those old-woman/young-woman optical illusions, where once you see one, it’s difficult to see the other, because I immediately thought that the only way for this image to “work” was if that was a reflected moon. But having seen that, I now can’t visualize the way that’s described in the post. Is it because the water part of the picture looks more like you’re looking up at the sky?

  11. Levi in NY

    Un jour je te verrai, la belle France! J’arrive!

  12. Adam

    If you follow the line of lights from Geneva towards the middle left of the image, it looks like that’s the route to Chamonix, and you can see where (the) Monte Blanc (tunnel) is, and the Valle d’Aosta runs on the other side, down to the Northern side of Torino (Turin). The Piccolo (or Petite) San Bernard will be to the right of that, and that Arc shaped piece of light is, I think the Chambery – Annecy area. There’s a lot of ski resorts in there.

    The light pollution, while not great, looks worse because of the long exposure time. I think?

  13. I was just thinking about asking an astronaut how the nightside view of Earth changes under bright moonlight. This image helps answer my questions. Now I want to know with out the electronic filter and hear an eye-witness response.

    And just a thought: Could we say the largest man made object is the electric power grid? Could you see it from the Moon? If you could block out the Sun when the Earth is near ‘new’, would the crescent remaining overpower the network of lights? Sorry to go off on a tangent!

  14. ben

    C’est beau!

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @5. Morbid Florist Says:

    @Messier: The ISS is called “Station spatiale internationale” in French. Those most of the people I’ve heard talking about it just say the english name, or ISS. They pronounce it “Eee-Ess-Ess”. Isn’t that cute?

    Yes – and thanks. :-)
    So what did I say in translation back? 😉

    And if you think your German is bad, I had a supervisor who taught some of his guys how to pick up ladies in German. “Ich bin schwol”. Yeah, that was funny.

    I’m sure it is but I’m afraid my German isn’t good enough to get the joke. What does that mean? “I am ??” :-(

  16. juhan

    Grazie da Torino
    Merci de Turin
    Thanx from Turin
    (Yes Torino is Turin)

  17. Letodan

    Well, as a french speaking guy, I appreciate the french words in that article. Although I just wanted to correct one small thing. You can’t say “C’est belle” in french. I know adjectives are difficult with the female and male gender but, in this case, you should say “C’est beau”. It’s probably because “c’ ” stands for “cela” which is “this” in english and, the gender is male in this case. You could say of a woman that, she is beautiful (elle est belle). but, if you look at a beautiful sight, you gotta say “C’est beau (cela est beau or This is beautiful)”.

    But, don’t worry, my english is far from perfect so, I don’t mind that much about it. I just thought I would correct it so that, next time, you’ll get it right!

  18. Tu m’as battu de vitesse, Letodan!

  19. P de C

    As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching!”.

  20. Ssurell

    I thought it was a lava flow.

  21. MarcoDL

    Wonderful nightshot. Luckily they chose an area that has not as much light pollution as the one to the east. If you compare this night picture with one of the Pianura Padana in northern Italy you’d be astonished by the difference between the two.

    Here you can clearly see the curve of the Alps and the Massif Central (both scarcely populated areas apart for the valleys that are illuminated and look like snakes or lava flows) while in the Pianura Padana (one of the most polluted areas in Europe) you’ll see a bowl of light with “rays” spiralling in every direction towards the valleys of the Alps and the Appennines.

  22. jcm

    Is it a beautiful picture from a aesthetic perspective but it shows how terrible light pollution has gotten for doing astronomy.

    On a side note: Sinkhole in Guatemala City</a..

  23. It looks like a lava field cracking as more lava oozes out. Very nice picture. Wish there was one at 1080p.. that’d make an awsome desktop!

  24. Giles

    [Sorry, fausse manœuvre.]

  25. Giles

    a view of l’Hexagone (with a cap. H when referring to France)
    C’est magnifique ! C’est beau ! (There’s a non-breaking space before an exclamation mark in French)
    Clair de Lune
    Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

    Please edit, you’ll look more proficient in French! And thanks for the picture.

  26. Gaah! La grammaire horrible, il me choque beaucoup !

    The way I learned French, c’est is used only with nouns and adjectives describing situations. For adjectives describing things like ‘magnifique’ or ‘beau,’ (belle is the feminine of beau, by the way) use il est or elle est depending on gender.

    </linguistic pedantry>

  27. Jeffersonian

    That’s the same thing I did! (look for Geneve, Albertvile, Val d’Isere and Grenoble, a previous residence down there…)
    le haute savoie!

  28. Morbid Florist

    @15: Messier: My understanding was it meant gay. Excuse me frauline, I am gay. Something along those lines. I’m sure I mispelled it. Might have been slang, who knows! Haha…

    @12:Adam: Funny, I was doing the exact same thing! I couldnt figure out what the arc / straightish line was – maybe Annecy area or the resorts over there.

    In any case, got me hungry for some Tartiflette!

    PS – Phil, don’t worry about your French grammar / punctuation, most French people don’t even get it right. :) It’s a hard language to perfect!

  29. Adam

    @27: I have family living in Val d’Aosta so I tend to look for it whenever I see any images of the region. I think Aosta is that small, brighter blob on the diagonal line about 1/3 the way up on the left hand side, between the two darker areas (the upper of which, as we look at it, so it’s the southern side is the Gran paradiso). If you follow that line NW (right and down), it turns right (straight down slightly) and there’s a string of slightly brighter blobs , then a small dark patch. That’s Courmayeur and Monte Blanc (the autostrada runs up the valley to through tunnels which is probably the bitty nature of the lights). The line of lights on the other side of the dark patch, that runs perpendicular is Chamonix and you can follow the route back to Geneva. It may be easier in reverse, if you know the French side better.

    @27 & 28: The arc with the dark patch near the lower middle is the E712 Chambery to Grenoble road and the dark patch is the mountainous area it skirts (St-Pierre-d’Entremont according to the map, I’ve never been there). Yeah,once you have Grenoble, etc. the Haute Savoie is pretty obvious. I’m still trying to work out some of the resorts, if I can be bothered – but paused when I couldn’t work out which was BSM. The patchy ribbon between Chambery/Grenoble and Turin that looks like it could join Chambery & Turin, does because it’s the E70. Between that and Val d’Aosta (described above) are most of the resorts – you can also see Albertville directly “above” Annecy and to the left of Chambery.

    Or am I going too far?

  30. #28.,#15.: Yes, ‘Ich bin schwul’ means ‘I am gay’ in German;

    #15/3: ‘Gute nackt’ vs. ‘Gute Nacht’. Honest mistake, a lot of non-native speakers have trouble pronouncing the ‘ch’ in ‘Nacht’ and make it sound like ‘nackt’ (naked) 😀

  31. I love this post. I was redirected to this one via today’s Bad Astronomy post on nov 20th, a compilation of pictures on Bad Astronomy. On my blog today I posted the picture of the France/Italy border with a hyperlink to this site. I’m hoping it’ll generate some traffic from my page to yours. Much Respect! I read your blog daily and love it.
    -DJ Busby
    here’s the link:


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