Appalachian nocturne: a tour of the eastern US from space

By Phil Plait | February 6, 2012 10:24 am

Recently, a picture of the New England area of the US photographed by astronauts on the ISS made the rounds. It was lovely, and inspired Rémi Boucher and Guillaume Poulin, two scientific communicators at an astronomy center in southern Quebec called the ASTROLab, to see if more pictures were taken. At The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth they found hundreds of photos taken from that pass, so they put them together into a wonderful time lapse video of the journey:

The video starts as the space station is over the Gulf of Mexico. The path of the station took it just east of the US coastline, and this view looks generally to the northwest. You can see Florida clearly, as well as Atlanta (surprisingly far to the west), the gigantic DC-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York City corridor, then New England. Cape Cod is such an obvious landmark! Finally we can see southeastern Canada, and the Atlantic ocean.

I love how the northern lights are subtle, just hinted at, during much of the video since they are seen from such a great distance and edge-on, only to get brighter and stronger with proximity.

One thing that’s a bit puzzling: what are the lights seen in the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of the video? My first guess would be oil rigs — there are quite a few of them. If anyone knows for sure, leave a comment!

I’ll note that this video felt much smoother to me than others of its kind. It’s displayed at 30 frames per second, but slowed down to half speed on top of that, which is probably what helps give it such a smooth, velvety feel. The entire elapsed amount of real time is only about 10 minutes — which is a powerful reminder of just how fast 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec) really is.

Credit: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center. "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth."; Rémi Boucher – Guillaume Poulin / ASTROLab du parc national du Mont-Mégantic

Related posts:

Amazing moonset video taken from space!
Cool picture of Expedition 29 on its way home
Time lapse video: ISS cometrise
JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (20)

  1. Brian

    “what are the lights seen in the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of the video?” <~ Boats, I suspect.

  2. Dre

    It’s oil rigs. More than you thought, huh? Well, there’s a whole heck of a lot more than you see in that video!

    See for a better representation.

  3. Phil: the smooth frame rate is because Don Pettit (currently on the ISS) increased the frame rate of the camera captures from 1 every 3 seconds to 1 every second.

  4. Mike

    Have you read ‘The Swarm’ by Frank Schätzing yet? 😉

  5. My home territory, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton corridor in Northeastern PA, can be seen as a long diagonal stretch to the left of Long Island (just above a similarly-sized diagonal that I assume is the Lehigh Valley.) What surprises me – and shouldn’t – are all the little blue-white dots along Pennsylvania’s northern tier, which used to be a long expanse of lovely darkness in light pollution maps. Those are the glows of gas “fracking” wells in Marcellus Shale country, contaminating the water table below, the surface water and land all around, and the dark skies above. All to extract natural gas which is promptly shipped for sale overseas.

  6. justin

    Beautiful video! I agree that they are oil rigs. The Deepwater Horizon rig was right in the middle of that grouping, in fact. I’ve stood on the shores of Grand Isle, LA, and there are almost too many rigs to count. It’s a sad sight.

  7. Michael

    Colonies in a petri dish?

  8. Jeff

    you can easily see the trellis (ridge-valley structure) of parallel stretches of civilization from Birmingham up through Pittsburgh area. I’ve been through that area but it’s nice to see it from above.

  9. About the smoothness of the video, yes, the rate at which pictures were taken was faster, but also we used frame blending when slowing down the video by half.

  10. Gary

    While the light pollution on the ground is expansive, to me the most awesome part of this tour is the aurora which begins about half-way through the video. As we move deeper into Cycle 24, these displays will become even more visible in the lower 48.

  11. One of the things me and Guillaume Poulin really loved about this particular timelapse, is the fact that we could easily see the light pollution around where we work (the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic) as seen from the ISS. In 2007, the IDA recognized the world’s first International Dark-Sky Reserve around Mont Megantic, Quebec.

    I took one of the frames to show approximately where is the Mont-Mégantic Dark Sky Preserve and you can see it by following this link.

  12. bouch

    Remi, you make me proud to share the name Boucher!

    Few things jumped out at me:

    1) How much light pollution there is on Long Island. The whole island seems as bright as many of of the major cities. Freeze at 25 seconds and it seems brighter, and over a much larger area, than Providence, RI, Hartford, CT, or even Boston, MA. (although Boston seems to be under some cloud cover)

    2) How bright Norfolk, VA, is. Had to do some quick Google earth to figure out even what city it was. (freeze at 18 seconds)

    3) At about 15 seconds in, I realized you can see both Chicago and NYC in the frame for a few seconds.

    4) How dark Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are.

    And for some reason I thought of the old “I can see my house from up here” joke…

  13. Yeah, see I’d be utterly useless in any ISS mission, (except perhaps as ballast, which isn’t particularly useful in space flight! :))… I’d spend all my time glued to the eyepiece, (or the windows, or the portholes, or any semi-transparent external surface) and not get any work done.

    I found it interesting to see the best and worst our species can achieve juxtaposed like this.

    Yes, I do consider light pollution to be a totally unnecessary evil. You-Know-Who has a *lot* to answer for with his alleged “Let there be light!” trick! :(

    And yes, there’s the safety aspect of outdoor lighting, but when you think about it, that says something even *worse* about certain members of our species!

    Still, it was wonderful to be a member of the Flying Tin Can club, even for just a few brilliant moments… Thank you!

  14. NAW

    Wow, my hometown is a lot brighter than I thought it was. It is the first bright mass going north on I75 after passing I10.

    Though it is crazy knowing what bright spot is what just living in the area.

  15. Chris A.

    I took a blogger on UT to task for his description of these images as “gorgeous,” so, to be fair, I have to do the same for you: As an astronomer, I find the sight of all this wasted light/energy to be as “lovely” as the rainbow colors of an oil slick.

    The aurora is cool, though.

  16. Chris A, one can appreciate the beauty in the ugly, as in the rainbow colors of an oil slick, whist still not liking it.
    I live near Philadelphia, the light pollution is insanely high here, washing out the sky with even the mildest of clouds enough to have difficulties seeing that Betelgeuse is red.
    It’s only in winter, when storm systems have finished clearing the atmospheric pollution and the clouds have departed that one can see the colors of the stars (indeed, after the last rain storms passed, Betelgeuse was the nicest shade of pink I ever recall seeing).
    On the up side, with all of that light pollution, I find it difficult to ram my car into any fixed object, as it is plainly visible by those polluting street lights. I also find burglars more easily caught before entering someone’s property with that polluting light.
    And when I’m in areas with low light pollution, I enjoy the view of the skies.
    So, try to see the beauty, even in what is an occupational annoyance or even a significant hamper, lest you live a miserable existence. :)

  17. Melusine

    Oil rigs. In your still photo that’s New Orleans on the far left and that bump sticking out on the right is Pensacola, FL. From the Texas beaches south of Galveston on a very clear and starry night I was amazed at how many rigs I could see lit up on the horizon and they were stationary. Forget looking out to a dark sea…it’s all dotted with lights. I have a photo during the daytime that shows how many rigs there are there…lots as Justin pointed out with his link. Huge tankers light up too, but of course those move, and there are many moving out of those ports.

    In the video, the arc of the northern lights is cool. And they’re natural lights!

  18. Noel

    Is it just me, or does the atmosphere seem to change thickness?

  19. Matt B.

    An issue of National Geographic a couple years ago included a map of the Gulf showing all the pipelines. It’s so much more than I ever would have guessed (frankly, I didn’t even know they used pipelines at sea). And some people think wind farms would be unsightly!


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