Who isn’t moved by images of the Earth at night?

In the contrast it shows between nature and settlement—in the civilizational network it reveals—it gestures at the mystery of human society. These composites are referenced in movies and in art and, especially, in data visualizations.

And I had assumed unthinkingly that the images above and below, last updated by NASA in 2012, were about as much as existed. A new database shows how much more there is.


Cities at Night collects images that astronauts have taken of Earth at night. It organizes them on a map, and draws them from a much larger resource: the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, a NASA-organized database of all photos taken by astronauts in space.

For me, that brings a depth to these pictures that’s not present in other images of Earth from orbit. These aren’t machine-collected images, like those a weather satellite or Landsat might capture. No program indicated that these images should be captured. Rather, a person—often, with a DSLR you could buy at a store—saw something on the surface that caught their attention, focused the camera, and took a picture.

These are the results.



New York:

One of the American members of the ISS captured this image of New York City on March 23, 2013, as the laboratory flew overhead. (NASA Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit)



New Orleans:

NASA, the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit

The database showcases many cities beyond these, including smaller municipalities, like Phenix, Virginia; Atlantic, Iowa; and my own Trenton, New Jersey. It was compiled by an organization of Spanish astrophysicists to help inform readers about light pollution.

And while you’re musing about what your home looks like from above, consider that we don’t know what the astronaut’s own home looks like: No one has taken a detailed picture of the ISS since 2010.