Mount Everest Doesn't Look All That Big When You See It From Space

The rocky crest of Earth's crust barely peeks out from the planet around it.

Mount_Everest_(topgold).jpg

Wikimedia Commons

At just over 29,000 feet above sea level, Mount Everest's peak reaches the farthest into the sky of any piece of Earth. But when seen from space, even this monster appears just part and parcel with the crust of the planet it is part of. As Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev observed, "How many people dream of conquering Everest, so that they can look down from it, and yet for us from above it was difficult to even locate."

An infographic designed to show the altitude reached by Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo inadvertently does a good job of comparing the height of our tallest mountain with other objects that have reached high above the Earth.

SS2_infographic_small-thumb-550xauto-38930.jpg

Yet astronauts living on board the International Space Station have managed to get a beautiful picture of the mountain from their orbiting perch some 250 miles above the Earth, as shown in the image below taken in 2004.* (The infographic pegs it at 236 but it moves and has recently been closer to 250. Everest, in contrast, rises some five miles over the seas). 

324497main_everest_946.jpg

NASA

Astronaut Ron Garan who lived on the Space Station last year recently lamented that he had never gotten a good shot of Mt. Everest from space. I asked him why Everest had eluded him and he explained over email: "The answer is quite simple, all the photos we take from space are taken in the crew's own personal time. No time is allotted in our work day normally for Earth pictures. So if we want to capture a specific point on the ground we have to first know exactly when we will fly over that spot, second be available to grab a camera and get to a window, and third have the weather and proper sun angles to get a great shot. Over the course of my six months in space I was never able to get all three of those to align for Mt. Everest."



Update: This post originally used a different image that NASA had misidentified as Everest.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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