A puzzling planet picture from the ISS

By Phil Plait | May 10, 2011 7:00 am

Around the time of Earth Day (April 22) this year, International Space Station astronaut Ron Garan posted several pictures he took of the Earth from space. They are all remarkable, but one in particular caught my eye:

[Click to embiggen.]

Isn’t that awesome? You can see city lights on the ground, part of a solar panel structure on the left, and even the Belt and dagger of Orion as the constellation’s stars set over the western horizon. It’s kinda neat to see objects a few meters away, a few hundred kilometers away, and few quadrillion kilometers away all in the same shot!

When Ron tweeted the link to this picture, though, he only gave a time and date he took it — April 21 at 20:34 GMT — but not what he saw, nor the position of the ISS over the Earth. I was curious: what city lights are those?

And, as it turns out, sometimes simple questions lead to complex, tortuous answers.

The immediate answer is, I’m not sure. Maybe someone out there in blogland can help me! But let me tell you the tale first.

OK. The ISS orbit is known well enough that given a certain time, its position over the Earth can be found. We need that first to figure out what cities these are. So, where was the ISS? I started poking around the web, and was surprised that the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. I use Heavens Above to find when the ISS passes over my town, but it doesn’t give solutions to the position of the ISS for a given time. None of the other software I looked at could either.

So I decided to Twittersource it! I asked my followers who knew how to do this, and within a couple of minutes DaveGW came through, telling me I could use the amazing Wolfram Alpha software site for it. Sure enough, it delivered, giving me this picture here:

Coooool. The position of the ISS at that time is marked (over Belgorodskaya Oblast, Russia, just east of the Ukraine border), the orbit is given as the purple line, and also very importantly, it marked that gray circle. That covers the area of the Earth from which you could see the space station, or, conversely, the part of the Earth you can see from the space station!

OK, excellent first step. But what direction was Ron facing when he took the picture? Happily, the Belt of Orion tells us that: at this time of the year, Orion sets just north of due west in the sky. It’s still a bit above the horizon, but this means Ron was definitely facing west, and looking perhaps a bit south as well.

So then what’s needed is a map of eastern Europe centered on Belgorodskaya Oblast that I could rotate to look west. At this point the web didn’t help much. I thought about it for a second, then realized I have an amazing tool I haven’t used in a long time.

An atlas.

Yes, an actual book you hold in your hands; I was sent one years ago as partial payment for one of the first paying articles I ever wrote. So I pulled out the atlas, found the area I wanted, turned it so I was looking west…*

And stopped. Hmmm. There are a lot of cities in that area, and it’s actually hard to tell what’s what. You have to be careful; the picture Ron took is near the horizon, where the curvature of the Earth distorts distances wildly. The cities in the foreground might be a few hundred km away, while the ones near the horizon might be over 1000!

We do have some good clues though. The gray circle in the visibility map goes as far west as Denmark, cutting across Germany. Cities on the horizon can’t be farther away than that.

So poking around, I found a rough match. I think the big city just below and to the right of center is Warsaw, Poland. The city just above and to the left could then be Lodz. It has a population of 700,000 compared to Warsaw’s 1.7 million, so the amount of city lights looks about right.

Well over to the left (south and west), partially blocked by the solar panel, lie two populated regions. These may be Krakow and Katowice.

Finally, almost to the horizon, right under Orion’s belt, might be Berlin. Distance and haze would dim the city lights, but at this point I’m just guessing.

So now I’m at my limit. I’d love to have some software that would allow me to simply say, "Show me the view from ISS on this day at this time, looking west." However, I tried a few free programs (Celestia, Cartes du Ciel) and had no luck. If anyone knows of any software like this, I’d love to see it! And if you have any insight on this picture, leave a comment below.

It’s amazing to me that the Earth is so big and sometimes so difficult to pin down. But then, I love the fact that asking such a simple question — "What am I seeing here?" — can turn into a puzzle that can be so much fun to solve.

* At that very moment my wife walked into my office and asked me what I was doing. I told her, and she asked "Why are you spending so much time on this?" I replied, "It tasks me. It tasks me, and I shall have it!" She looked at me oddly and walked away. A "Wrath of Khan" aficionado she is not. But of course: "Humor. It is a difficult concept."

Related posts:

Goodnight, Earth
Fire and ice
Squishy Moonrise seen from space
Guess the planet

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (75)


    You can see city lights on the ground, part of a solar panel structure on the left, and even the Belt and dagger of Orion…

    Yeah, “dagger”… sure it is… 😉

  2. Fabio Miguez

    For software that allows you a view of the ISS at a given time, how about NASA’s Eyes On The Solar System? http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/eyes/

  3. Can’t you use Google Earth? You can position yourself over a given lat/long, at an approximate altitude, and rotate your view accordingly.

    I don’t have Google Earth installed on my work laptop or I could check.

  4. Scott

    It’s amazing what photo opportunities open up when you have a camera that can take passible photos at ISO 12800!

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great picture. :-)

    @ 1. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE : “Yeah, “dagger”… sure it is… 😉 ”

    [Pedant mode activated.] Actually, its Orion’s sword – as Kaler :


    & wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(constellation)

    & Ian Ridpath’s star tales : http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/orion2.htm

    will confirm! :-)

    Although the last one there does offer the alternative of it being his hunting knife instead.

  6. Firemancarl

    I was gonna say it was a Pre-Republic Coruscant. But I guess it can be Earth too.

  7. Jeff

    Google Earth is your answer.


    I wasn’t 100% on with the height and location, but its at least close enough :)

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ Firemancarl : Yes – or Trantor from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – & some of his other novels too. 😉

    Which was possibly the inspiration for Coruscant too?

  9. Sam H

    @4 Firemancarl: Coruscant’s the first thing I thought of too!! :)

    Question: what are those two green blotches immediately to the lower left of Orion’s Belt? They look a little like aurora, but they don’t seem bright enough. Image artifact, perhaps?

  10. Sam H

    And Messier @5: that seems fairly certain, given that the inspiration for Star Wars came from a variety of places. Just wondering what Asimov would’ve thought of Lucas’ almost-exact copy of his idea.

  11. Jeremy Winterson

    I found a wallpaper showing Europe as it appears at night here: http://wallpaperstock.net/earth-at-night_wallpapers_13495_1600x1200_1.html

    Looking at that and at Google Maps it seems you’re right- it’s Warsaw in the foreground and Berlin in the distance.

  12. @Slugsie That was my first thought as well. Google earth is just about the best tool for this kind of thing (Atlas type work). Just with a quick look on my iPhone using the Google Earth App, I was able to find the approximate location, center myself, zoom in to an appropriate altitude (200 miles. I read that the ISS orbits at 173 miles to 286 miles.), then look in the specified direction. I wasn’t able to get a good idea of what cities I was seeing, but as a proof of concept, it’s sound. Someone needs to check with the desktop version.

  13. Let’s hear it for Wolfram-Alpha! (I was going to suggest it before I read the part that said you already did that.)

    Speaking of which, why haven’t you posted anything on the current planetary alignment? (I only hear about it from an online news site sidebar, pointing to an article on how it’s not going to destroy the Earth.)


    Scroll down to the “current solar system configuration”, and click “zoom in”. You’ll see Earth., Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all in a nice straight line. In fact, if you scroll down to “current sky position”, all you get is a blob for all of them, as they are so close.

  14. Matt

    Figured it out using Google Earth with the NASA City Lights layer. The shot is of Poland. The large city in the center is Warsaw.


  15. dcsohl

    I dug a little deeper, using Wolfram Alpha… The width of Orion’s belt is about 2.5 degrees (8 minutes RA = 2 degrees, and 1.5 degrees declination, amounts to, via Pythagorean Theorem, about 2.5 degrees).

    We also see, from Phil’s diagram, that the horizon is, roughly, Denmark… and that Denmark is about 1800 km from the spot the ISS was directly over. (I could not get Wolfram Alpha to tell me how far the ISS was from Copenhagen, but at this distance the 350km altitude of the ISS doesn’t add that much to the distance.)

    From a distance of 1800 km, an apparent width of 2.5 degrees is in reality under 80 km (50 miles), so that gives us some idea of the scale of the picture.

    From the ground under the ISS, Alnilam (the center star of the Belt) had just set at this time, and its azimuth was 286 degrees so, as Phil says, a bit north of west (16 degrees north of west). Based on Phil’s orthographic diagram, I’d guess, in fact, that the picture was taken looking almost directly towards Berlin…

    A very rough measurement (by my fingers), using the width of Orion’s belt, shows that the large city front and center is about 3 degrees below the horizon. At that point in time, the ISS was 3.5 degrees above the horizon in Berlin so I’m guessing Berlin is in fact that large city. From Warsaw the ISS is 9 degrees above the horizon, so I don’t think we’re looking at Warsaw.

  16. Sam the glider pilot

    Using a program called Satellite Tool Kit I attempted to recreate the snapshot that Ron Garan took. You can see the effort here:


    Phill, you were right about it being Berlin in the distance. You can see the line that Warsaw, Berlin, and another city in the middle (Poznan?) makes in the original photo and in this recreation.

    I took snapshots all around the ISS, seeing how much the image changed depending on what window Ron was looking out of, and the scene did not change at all except for the panel being in the way on the left. The alignment of Orion relative to the Earth stayed pretty much the same no matter where the snapshot was taken.

  17. Dan

    I took a quick look with Google Earth. If the station was over Belgorod and the picture was taken looking west, doesn’t that make it more likely the bright city just right of center is Kiev?

  18. Thomas Siefert

    The young author sits in the editor’s office looking at his payslip: “I had hoped for a bit more”.
    The editor leans back in his chair: “Hmm… a bit more you say..” He looks around his office and his face lights up when his eyes locks at something: “How about a nice atlas my young friend?”.

  19. asmoeth

    This is exactly right. Halfway between Warsaw and Berlin you can see another city. This is Poznań (roughly 0,6 million inh.) and if you look at the map, you’ll realize that you could draw a straight line (well, almost…) connecting Warsaw, Berlin and Poznań.

    Greetings from Warsaw. Had I known, I would have smiled for the photo.

  20. mike burkhart

    If this wasn’t the ISS I’d think this was the night side of Jupiters moon Io and the lights were all volcanos but I agree with Phil its Berlin or maybe Munic.

  21. Viadd

    > It’s amazing what photo opportunities open up when you
    > have a camera that can take passible photos at ISO 12800!

    More of a case of “f/8 and be there”.

  22. Jason

    Doesn’t Google earth have a “Night-time” view? or a layer that shows a nighttime view of cities etc? If so You could use that layer, put the position in and turn on the labeling and see the city names.

  23. Paddy

    > Scroll down to the “current solar system configuration”, and click “zoom in”. You’ll see
    > Earth., Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all in a nice straight line. In fact, if you scroll
    > down to “current sky position”, all you get is a blob for all of them, as they are so close.

    Like it! Unless, of course, it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse (Cthulhu’s alarm clock, perhaps*?) 😛

    * Yes, I know that planets are not stars. However, iirc they were described as something which would roughly translate to “mobile stars” by the astronomers of yore.

  24. Jake

    Wolfram|Alpha is almost certainly the most mind-bogglingly useful website in existence.

  25. MarcusBailius

    This is a good game. I wonder if Phil needs to widen his view a bit – it’s a long way up, and sitting over Eastern Ukraine… I agree with Warsaw as the brightest source, but I wonder if over to the left by the solar panel, that is the huge illuminated region of Vienna? With cities like Bratislava just below the solar panel, along the line of the Danube towards bottom left, as far perhaps as Budapest?
    I would put the three cities nearest the supposed Warsaw as Wroclav, Katowice, Krakow. Prague and Munich are off in the distance left of centre, while Poznan and Berlin are slightly right of centre above Warsaw. Kiev would be somewhere off the bottom.
    Well, as I said, it’s a good game…!

  26. Pete

    Satellite Tool Kit (STK) from Analytical Graphics would do the trick. There’s even a free version (http://www.agi.com/products/free-software/) that might work.


  27. I’m no mathematician, but couldn’t you triangulate the cities using what you know about the ISS? Meaning, how many miles above the earth is it? And then, using the circumference of the earth, how many miles from that point to the horizon?

    Then you could pinpoint precisely which cities are where on the image. Right?

  28. Kris

    If you look horizontally right from Warsaw, then there is a bright spot just at the edge of the photo — this would be Gdańsk. From Gdańsk, you can draw a line at about 45 deg. up and to the left; you notice, that there no light sources to the right of the line. That makes sense, because that line corresponds to the coast of Baltic sea. To the left of the coast line, (or, about 60 deg. counterclockwise from Gdańsk) we see a bright city, which corresponds to Szczecin. (The Baltic coast in Poland goes East-West, but Szczecin is recessed to the south). Thus, the big hazy object further along the Gdansk-Szczecin line, near the horizon would be Berlin.

    Since we have identified the Baltic coast, then the object below the solar panel is indeed Kraków, because the distance from Warsaw to Kraków and Gdańsk is basically the same. The bigger neighboring object (right of the solar panel, partially obscured) which Phil identified as Katowice, is in fact a densely populated Upper Silesia region (about 3 million people). (Not that Phil is wrong here; Katowice is the administrative center of the region, so that’s what you find written on the map).

    The big city between Warsaw and Berlin (about 2/3rds of way from Warsaw to Berlin) would be Poznan.

  29. Kris

    Alright, here is an annotated version: http://i.imgur.com/0iy8P.jpg

    Turned out to be easier than I though. Once you identify the main cities (what Phil did), the rest is very straightforward. Although being native to the city below the solar panel helps :)

  30. eyesoars

    An Atlas?


  31. Chris A.

    An atlas is all the more ironic, given that in the original Greek mythology, Atlas held up not the earth, but the heavens (otherwise, what would he have been standing on?).

    I’m wondering what some of the desktop astronomy programs (Starry Night, The Sky, etc.) would do if you gave them a location on Earth (lat./long.), but specified an altitude above MSL of 353,000 m…

    (goes away, checks, returns)

    As I suspected, The Sky 6 won’t let you input an altitude above 20,000 m. I don’t have any others–would someone else care to check?

  32. Tudor Lewis

    Looking for images to distort in Photoshop and compare I cam across these photos.

  33. Matt B.

    How can Orion’s belt appear so parallel to the horizon if you see it when looking west? I figured the view would have to be southward, but then Orion couldn’t be so close to the horizon. I’ll have to see what I can do with Celestia when I get home.

  34. Dan

    I still think that Warsaw is too far away for that to be it. The ISS orbits at between 173 and 286 miles ASL. The closest part of Belgorod is 1000 miles from Warsaw, and those bright lights in the center are too close. I think the city right in the middle is Kiev, Ukraine. The lights just to the left and above Kiev in the picture would be Belaya Tserkov, a slightly smaller city in Ukraine.

    The lights partially obscured by the solar array could be Chisinau, Moldova. Below the array and right on the edge of the picture are a set of bright, but cut-off lights that are in the right position to be Odessa, and on the right edge of the picture slightly higher than the middle is a bright patch that corresponds with the position of Minsk, Belarus.

    But I think Warsaw is in the picture. It’s the large-but-dim patch near the horizon that Phil took for Berlin.

  35. Kurt

    Google Earth is totally the way to go. I’m seeing right now what the picture shows.

  36. Stargazer

    Awesome work there!

  37. RawheaD

    Have you tried Google Earth with the NASA->Earth City Lights layer turned on? [doing so right now]

  38. Kris

    My other comment got stuck in a moderation limbo, so again:

    The annotated version: i.imgur.com/0iy8P.jpg

  39. Tim

    @10 Thomas Seifert: That was the funniest thing I’ve read in the comments section in a while. I had thought about making a joke about his payment, but it would have been nowhere near as eloquent. Good job.

  40. Aleksandar Kuktin

    One should be able to geometricaly reconstruct, in 3D, the objects in view.

    Using the curvature of the Earth and Orion’s belt, you could reconstruct your location in relation to the Earth and the Universe at large. Map the location of light blobs on the sphere of Earth and from that create a 2D map of the planetary surface. Compare the map to the atlas and voila! :)

    However, that is some serious math and I have an exam tomorrow. It’ll have to wait until after the exam.

  41. RawheaD

    Yup, took a bit of searching around but I got pretty much the identical view in Google Earth:


    Don’t know how to turn on labeling for all the populated areas from this distance, but you get the gist :-)

  42. Roger

    I use a little program called Orbitron. I can see where almost any satellites up there. It’s a neat little program.

  43. JohnDoe

    Celestia should be able to show the earth from the point of view of the ISS, if manually “go” there. There are plenty of night textures, up to 32000 pixels wide available from http://www.celestiamotherlode.net/catalog/earthnight.php Could someone please try that and post a screenshot?

  44. mike burkhart

    About Io and off topic,A good movie that takes place on Io is Outland staring fromer 007 Sean Connery ,it has a good anti-durg message and good special efects.I think it was inspired by the Western High Noon ,the plot was simular.

  45. csrster

    I thought Matt B. might be on to something but I checked with an online flash planetarium at http://astrotips.com/static_html/flash_planetarium.html and yes Orion’s belt is very nearly parallel to the horizon when setting at that latitude. And of course Orion would be setting, not rising, on a Spring evening.

  46. Tigerlily

    I know exactly what cities those are, yep, and I’m pretty sure I can see my house from here…..

  47. Grand Lunar

    ” I thought about it for a second, then realized I have an amazing tool I haven’t used in a long time.

    An atlas.”

    Too bad you didn’t have an Atlas V!

    “I told her, and she asked “Why are you spending so much time on this?” I replied, “It tasks me. It tasks me, and I shall have it!””

    Is it any wonder why we all love you, Phil?

  48. One other useful piece of info you could use to measure distances in that picture and thus figure out what might be what is the angle of the field.

    The camera is a Nikon D3S which is a full frame sensor, and the shot was taken at 80mm zoom. Assuming the image isn’t cropped then that gives a horizontal angle of around 25%.

    Pretty sure that someone with better maths skills than I could use that info to measure distances and get an even better handle on what we can see.

  49. Chris A.

    @Slugsie (#30):
    No need for the camera lens geometry. The stars provide the scale: Orion’s belt is 2.74 degrees, from Alnitak (the easternmost star) to Mintaka (the westernmost). So I make the image to be 25 x 17 degrees.

  50. Nathaniel Virgo

    Here’s the corresponding view from Google Earth. It was a bit of a fiddle to get the labels to come up (I had to move the camera around), so I added them myself in an image editor. Basically, I reckon you’re right on all counts, including Berlin.


  51. Kris

    @31: “Pretty sure that someone with better maths skills than I could use that info to measure distances and get an even better handle on what we can see.”

    Straight line distance from Kraków (left side of the image, near the solar panel) to Gdańsk (right side of the image) is 530km. From Berlin (top), to Brest (near bottom), the distance is 780km. So we are looking at about 600km (N-S) X 900km (E-W).

    Also note how the amount of light drops once you cross the Rzeszow-Lublin-Brest line. You are seeing the border between Poland and former USSR countries.

  52. Carbone

    You’re probably correct.

    screenshot from google earth:

  53. Yep, we’re definitely looking at Poland. The brightest city in the center is Warsaw, and the rest of Poland’s major cities are there (click my name for a map).

  54. Robert S.

    Here’s a screenshot form Orbiter (http://orbit.medphys.ucl.ac.uk/) with the viewpoint placed at the coordinates from WolframAlpha and my best guess at the field of view (using the 17deg vertical fov suggested by Chris A.)

    Unfortunately the night light texture that Orbiter uses doesn’t show up very well, but you can see the tagged cities, and Orion in the background for perspective. Going from this it looks like your bang on with Warsaw/Lodz, and Berlin looks pretty good too. My best guess at the city hidden by the panel would be Munich (München), although since it’s near the side it’ll depend a lot more on the exact fov…

  55. Dan

    I disagree, that’s Ukraine. Warsaw is too far away from Belgorod to be front and center like that given altitude of the orbit (between 175-280 miles) The large city nearly centered in the picture is Kiev. To the southwest of it (above and left in the picture) is most likely Belaya Tserkov. The city partially obscured bu the solar array is Chisinau, Moldova. At bottom left on the very edge of the picture I believe is Odessa, also in Ukraine, and on the right edge of the picture right in the middle you can see lights that correspond to the position of Minsk, Belarus.

    I think Warsaw is the dim (distorted) city near the horizon that Phil thought was Berlin.

    I apologize if this ends up duplicated, my earlier comment seems to have vanished.

  56. Draugo

    Damn, few minutes earlier and facing north and you could have seen my house :)

  57. take a breath

    Scarcely this area is Russia, it’s pretty countryside down there..

  58. Mchl

    I can see my house!

  59. Mchl

    BTW: Assuming the picture was taken from Cupola, and the staation was flying rougly west to east at that moment, we’re looking aft. The panel seen on the left is either one of Zarya’s folded panels, or (more probably) a panel of whichever Soyuz/Progress was docked to Zarya’s nadir docking port at that time.

  60. Neal

    Is that green pixie-dust scattered all across the image artifacts from cosmic ray strikes?

  61. ChazInMT

    I beg to differ…No one has mentioned the dark areas in the photo that look like water in the bottom center. Any guesses as to that?? Well I’ve been there, it’s southern Poland and it is very mountainous. Therefore I say that the bright lights are Krakow, under the solar panel is Vienna & Bratislavia, top right city is Berlin with Wroclaw Poland in between. Nowa Sazc Poland is the city in the foreground in front of Krakow up against the Tetra mountains.

    If this were Warsaw, the Baltic would dominate the upper right section of the photo. Plus, there aren’t any super dark areas like mountains southwest of Warsaw.

    The cities line up as they do on the map from Nowa Sacz to Berlin, he had his camera tilted right a bit to make Orion look parallel to the top of the picture.

    I used Google Earth, and put my eye elevation at 240 miles looking west directly above Kiev Ukraine.

    The light in the sky on the right horizon is the last bit of setting sun.

    And I really can see my condo in Wroclaw in this picture.

    Hope this helps.

  62. Here is a labeled version of the image. I love this kind of puzzle too!

  63. Oh. Must’ve not hit “Save” someow…

    What? HTML tags are disabled? Rats! No embedded pictures from commenters, then…
    Try this:

  64. Great picture. :-)

    @ 1. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE : “Yeah, “dagger”… sure it is… ” 😉

    [Pedant mode activated.] Actually, its Orion’s sword – as Kaler’s ‘Stars’ website (click on my name), Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath’s ‘Star tales’ one all say. Although the last one mentioned there does offer the alternative of it being his hunting knife instead. 😉

  65. luki700

    the best wish from Poland ! :-)

  66. Teri

    Awesome post! How long did all of the detective work take?

  67. Matt B.

    You were right, Phil, Celestia was useless. It had the ISS over Newfoundland. Either it was programmed in wrong or its orbit has been adjusted too much since then (I’m guessing the former). But Orion’s belt is tilted more than I remember, so that explains it.

  68. Bree

    Talk about investigative journalism. What a wonderful time we live in.

  69. Adrienne

    Richard Drumm – I have confirmed your image :) http://tinyurl.com/EastEuropeISS

    I used WorldWide Telescope using the Earth at Night view, at the right altitude, found the right angle visually, and matched up the view from Warsaw to Berlin and then the rest of the city light blotches all fell into place. I could match it all up with your labeled image very well. Good job Richard!


  70. I would think Google Earth would do what you want to do.
    Under the Layers section Gallery>NASA>Earth City Lights

    But I went ahead and went to where you were describing in your search and it seems, in comparison, that you are right on. In my image I’m not 250miles up (I believe that’s how high the ISS is) but if I was that far away the labels on Google Earth wouldn’t show…. http://imageshack.us/f/192/nightskyovereurope.jpg/

  71. ChazInMT

    OK, I been lookin at this again and must say…I was wrong…..Not Krakow as the center piece, it is Exactly as Richard Drumm has it in his Photo.

    Sorry Bout that. Good Job Richard!!

  72. Kamil K.


    I made a few amendments: charted the Polish border, and added the names of major cities.

    Here you can check this out:

    Regards Kamil


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