Flying around the Earth

By Phil Plait | September 17, 2011 11:04 pm

If you’ve ever wondered what it must feel like to fly around the Earth at 28,000 kilometers per hour, then wonder no more.

[Make sure you set it to the highest resolution, then make it full screen. You’re welcome.]

I saw this on Universe Today, where you can get details, as well as in the YouTube link above. Created by James Drake, it’s a compilation of 600 publicly available images, strung together to make an incredible time lapse animation. The actual motion of the International Space Station would appear much slower than this, but still. The clarity, color, dynamism, and sheer jaw-dropping wonder of this is spectacular to behold.

A lot of people on Twitter were asking about the brown-green arc above the Earth. That’s an aerosol haze, a glow caused by particles suspended high above the planet’s surface. It’s an extremely thin layer, so it’s best seen edge-on, for the same reason some very thin shells in space are bright only around the edges. From the ground it’s too faint to see this clearly, and from space it’s only visible on the night side of Earth.

This is truly magnificent. And the ending is, I hope, a metaphor for the future of human exploration of space. Things may seem dark now, but I am still hopeful that a new day will dawn on our efforts to reach out into the Universe around us.

Related posts:

Southern lights greet ISS and Atlantis
A delicately violent celestial shell game
A puzzling planet picture from the ISS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (61)

  1. William Wood

    Starting at about 0:55 and lasting only until about 0:58, an object moves against the starfield just above the earth, slightly to the right of center frame. Another satellite? A meteor?

  2. Mejilan

    Ohmigosh! The Earth is on fire in places!

  3. Very cool. Thanks for posting that.

  4. David in England

    Capturing lightning in clouds was a nice bonus.

  5. Steve

    At around the 0:30-0:35 a distinctly GREEN patch of lights drifts past. It seems to be western Guatemala if I’m getting my upside-side geography right. What’s the explanation for this?

    There don’t seem to be green lights anywhere else, and the color is definitely localized on the planet (i.e. it moves with the planet, it’s not a glitch on the camera lens/sensor). Perhaps its forest fires? Or lighting by some non-conventional method?

  6. Daniel Snyder

    What music are you playing while you watch? Ironically, I’m listening to Primative Radio Gods.

  7. Ronan

    “Things may seem dark now, but I am still hopeful that a new day will dawn on our efforts to reach out into the Universe around us”

    Answer : 2017 – the Space Launch System!

  8. Atheist Panda

    I could watch that for hours…..

    AP :)

  9. Gonçalo Aguiar

    Anyone noticed a bright object from 0:54 to 0:57 moving across the stars?


  10. Jeff Keogh


    Why scary? What is scary about satellites?

  11. Chris

    That’s a lot of light pollution

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    .. the ending is, I hope, a metaphor for the future of human exploration of space. Things may seem dark now, but I am still hopeful that a new day will dawn on our efforts to reach out into the Universe around us.

    Ramen to that. :-)

    Seconded & well said. :-)

    Great clip – thought the lightning was marvellously spectacular there especially. :-)

  13. Gonçalo Aguiar

    @8. Jeff Keogh

    Why can’t people tell when others are being sarcastic?
    And is that a satellite? It looked really close to the ISS from that POV.

  14. @Daniel Snyder I had some Boards of Canada going on first viewing, incidentally, then watched again with some Gustav Holst (Though I used Venus, because Op.32 does not contain an Earth movement).

  15. The reflections on the underside of the ISS are amazing. What a piece of work!

  16. Glidingpig

    That starts flying over Oregon or a bit north of it, SF and LA and the central valley are the obvious features to start. Than over Baja and down south. I kinda lose my bearings after that. The lightning in the clouds is way cool.

  17. Looks like Druidia´s defense shield. We´re ready for you, Mega Maid!

  18. William Wood

    @ Daniel Snyder: Curious you ask. By chance, I was listening to the “Amen” in James Whitbourne’s “Son of God” Mass. Wow — perfectly suited. (See

    (BTW, a Mass may be a strange choice for an atheist like me, but to me religion is like Star Wars: the music is good even when the story is, ahem, questionable.)

  19. SkyGazer

    What a heck of a view their office has!
    And it even moves…

  20. Ganzy

    Wow… Now that is special. What a perspective. The Earth is smaller than I imagined. All of a sudden the concept of carrying capacity has popped in to mind.

  21. ChazInMT

    I used Google Earth to figure this out, it makes sense up to about Mexico City, then it’s like …What? you go over the ocean, then It looks like another large very long island that you’re flying over from 43 Seconds, at 50 seconds you can see little islands off to the left…..But, they’re not islands. At 43 Sec, you are approaching the north west coast of South America, you are flying over Equador and northern Peru. 51 Seconds has Lima Peru down on your right. 55 seconds you see lake Titicaca, with La Paz, Bolivia just up & to the left of it. The sun is rising just as you reach Chile, over Argentina. The Island effect is due to the utter desolation and darkness of the Andes Mountains and South America’s interior.

    Very Cool.

  22. Ganzy

    @ Steve #7

    I watched the clip again and could see what you meant.

    My thoughts: Some countries seem to utilize more mercury discharge (Bluey-Green) bulbs in their streetlighting as opposed to Sodium (orange) discharge bulbs. I know Japan uses Mercury dishcharge lamps in the main. Seen close by, these bulbs emit a Bluey-Green spectrum. If these (in the video) are Mercury vapour bulbs they do seem to be giving out much more Green light than Blue, I wonder if the gases in the atmosphere serve to filter out more of the Blue part of the spectrum hence the overall lighting effect appearing greener??…

  23. Ganzy

    @ Steve #7

    On second thoughts, Guatemala, much Green foliage, mercury vapour lamps, reflected light is green-shifted because of foliage absorption of blue wavelengths.. Any one else got any ideas?

    The capital? seems to use a lot of Sodium lighting.

  24. Rob Campbell

    That’s quite wonderful. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I agree with a previous poster about the light pollution, however. All the light from the cities is scattered by atmosphere and obscures our view of the stars. Most people in developed countries can no longer see the Milky Way. Better lighting practices would fix this and save millions of dollars.

  25. @ Steve #7

    Look closely and the yellow brick road leading to it makes it obvious.

  26. Mat

    any idea what the flight path is of the ISS as I can’t recognise the land masses.
    What countries does this fly over?

  27. ChazInMT

    @Mat, My best guess is a path that starts from 350 Miles south of Kodiak Alaska, passing over the west coast of US at Eureka, CA, then over Phoenix, AZ, then Mexico City, then entering into South America at Mancora, Peru, traveling south through Peru til you get to about Lake Titicaca, and the sun “rises” on you. Give er take 100 miles.

  28. Ganzy

    @Dom #28 Sorry Dom I’m not getting you. I’m tryin.. Do you mean the Sodium lamp Superhighway streaking down through North America ending in-ish central america? It’s bladder shaped and the ‘outfall’ ends up in Guatemala.. or something? Radioactive? I don’t know… I ain’t good with ambiguity Dom, say what you see if your speakin to me please. I’m being sincere.

  29. I love seeing a thunderstorm from the other side.

  30. Peter

    @Ganzy #32 I think Dom is referring to The Wizard of Oz… Emerald City

  31. flip

    Gorgeous! After spending a week watching the Shuttle/ISS stuff, this is totally what I need to cheer me up. I was a bit jealous of those astronauts. … Now all I need is a big screen TV to watch this on.

  32. Ganzy

    @Peter #34 Ahh.. of course, Thanks Peter. So the Wizard of Oz really does exist :)

  33. @ChazInMT: Thanks for the flight path!
    This is truly amazing. And why NASA won’t release similar footage like this?

  34. Don

    I agree that you MUST watch it at the highest resolution. It is gorgeous.

  35. CR

    The lightning really made an already awesome video even awesomer. (Um… ‘more awesome’ for those who don’t speak English as a first language, and for those who DO, I know ‘awesomer’ isn’t legit… chalk it up to all those ’embigginate’ things Phil sprinkles all over the place! :) )

    I, too was thrown off by central South America’s relative darkness the first time I watched this… I thought I was looking at ocean on either side of a long island or else the Baja Peninsula, but couldn’t make it fit with what else I knew and saw… the flyby description ChazInMT gave crystalized things for me, so thanks for that!

  36. icemith

    I picked it as Baja California, and then expected Mexico and Central America, but couldn’t quite reconcile it. At least on the first viewing. As it is a relatively straight section of the flight, with respect to the Mercator depiction we are all familiar with, I was still confused when supposedly over northern South America. The clouds, darkness, and then the sunrise blew everything away. Pity it stopped then though.

    Surely NASA has continuous video of a whole orbit they could post for us, or even a whole 24 hours, for a real marathon of viewing. All at real time, though a “sped-up” thumbnail would be great, enabling us to pick and choose, would have even greater value.

    Thanks Phil, for the great opportunity for us to share, regardless.


  37. icemith

    I only had one res setting for this – no choice, but at least at full-screen, it was beaut. I did not try the Google /YouTube version, as I have only yesterday merged the two, and now they say I have to change password, etc, but won’t until I can do a bit of checking. I wasn’t going to mess it up before seeing the post anyway.

    Did anyone else have a choice, as HD at at least 720, would be awsome?


  38. RobT

    Where’s the whooshing sound? Shouldn’t there be some whooshing sound at that speed? Has Hollywood lied to me all these years with sound in space?

  39. rick king

    How fast(mph) would you be going if you went around the nightside of the earth(sunset to sunset) like this video in 1 minute?

  40. ChazInMT

    720,000 mph, quick answer.

    Quick answer made long:
    Since you’d be going 1/2 the diameter of the planet in 60 Seconds, it’s about 12,000miles, and there are 60 minutes in an hour, it’s 720,000 mph. Probably more complicated somehow with the tilt of the earth and the tilt of the ISS orbit, but it’s in the ballpark.

    At 720,000mph, you’d get to the moon in 20 minutes, the sun is 4½ months away, Jupiter could be reached in 2 years, Saturn in 4 years, Neptune would be 11 years, and the nearest star could be reached in 17,200 years.

    But the ISS crawls along at only 18,000 mph, so you’d need to multiply everything by 40 to get travel times, really kinda comical when you think of it in real terms.

    Nothing man has made has even gone 720,000 mph, we shot some satellites toward the sun, they went 156,000 mph that’s as fast as something made on earth has gone. (All speeds being in relation to the sun)

  41. Tribeca Mike

    Reminds me of the opening shots of “The Shining.” Perhaps Kubrick did film the Apollo 11 mission after all.

  42. brent

    Im having a hard time believing this. I would think the dark side of the earth would be almost pitch black minus the lights from the cities. But here you can plainly see the clouds as white and see the land masses. This is not adding up for me.

  43. ChazInMT
  44. Neutrino-Powered

    Light pollution reflecting off of the stations’ hardware during this entire phenominal glide – good or bad?! Also, don’t blink if you want to see your house; LOL.


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