Reporter's Notebook

Orbital View
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It’s World Oceans Day, giving the astronauts circling above us (or those back here on planet Earth) the perfect opportunity to post their best ocean-themed ‘grams. Here’s one from a current resident of the International Space Station, NASA’s Jeff Williams:


Happy #WorldOceansDay. It is easy to appreciate their beauty from up here.

A photo posted by Jeff Williams (@astro_jeffw) on

Meanwhile, British astronaut Tim Peake of the European Space Agency got a taste of some salt-water serendipity, flying over the same iceberg for a second time:

And here’s former ISS resident Scott Kelly with a throwback:

A cool but creepy shot above the Florida Everglades, like something out of a gator horror movie (and there are plenty of those):

Tristram Korten wrote a short dispatch from these waterways for the July/August 2011 issue of The Atlantic:

The crocodile lay in the mud, flat-bellied and splay-legged, its black unblinking eyes taking me in. It was at least 10 feet long and had a pale-green crenellated hide, with bumps and ridges. I knelt down on the bank of the canal for a better look.

Crocodiles are opportunists, lying still most of the day until something worth snapping at comes close enough. I wondered: How fast could this reptile clamber up the 30 feet of bank separating us? For just a moment, I wanted to see the world from the perspective of the prey. I was in the right spot; in few other places are the carnivores as big and plentiful as in Everglades National Park.

That’s the milestone the International Space Station reached yesterday. To celebrate, the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the ISS posted this serene view of the structure perched above Earth (though the angle does make it look like an ominous TIE fighter):

The first component of the ISS, the Zarya cargo module, launched on November 20, 1998. Since then, it’s orbited Earth every 90 minutes at around 17,500 miles per hour. NASA puts that in perspective:

That’s more than 2,643,342,240 miles traveled. Which is also like 10 round trips to Mars, OR nearly the distance to Neptune.

In commemoration of the 100,000th lap, another Instagram account from NASA posted a stunning, star-filled view of the space station:

At first glance, this looks like an aerial photo:

But nope, it’s actually a satellite image, at a remarkably rare angle and sharpness, as Benjamin Grant explains:

Here is an incredible Overview of the Bay Area, captured by DigitalGlobe’s newest satellite, the WorldView 3. The satellite was a remarkable 800 miles away over the Pacific Ocean when this Overview of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and downtown San Francisco was captured. The focal length of the satellite’s camera is 32 times longer than a standard DSLR camera, making an image like this possible.

A commenter exclaims, “Superb perspective, as an aerial photographer I can appreciate how remarkable the vantage point is!” But this commenter is a total buzzkill:

It’s a view like this that shows how San Fran is so fragile to global warming. So many houses will be flooded …

To get a sense of which ones, Mother Jones featured a map last year of the Bay Area showing what shoreline in the bay would be flooded in the next hundred years if water levels rise by eight feet—the projected figure from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Here’s a zoomed-out snapshot:

I recently wrote about my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Here’s a shot of my other home, New York City:

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on

“These little town blues,” as astronaut Tim Peake puns in his caption, describe the smallness of the city from space as well as referencing Frank Sinatra’s classic. As Peake notes, the left side of this photo is north, and Manhattan is the island in the middle. That big green rectangle is Central Park, of course, but the city’s iconic buildings are hardly visible. At this distance, the city of 8.4 million people looks to me like nothing so much as the lichens I found growing on rocks and tree bark while hiking with my family back in the Pacific Northwest—a very different environment from the paved and polished city I now know.

And yet, for a city like New York, lichens are a fitting metaphor. They’re composite organisms, as Wikipedia explains:

A lichen … arises from algae or cyanobacteria (or both) living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The combined life form has properties that are very different from the properties of its component organisms. … Lichens are abundant growing on bark, leaves, mosses, on other lichens, and hanging from branches “living on thin air” ... They grow on bare rock, walls, gravestones, roofs, exposed soil surfaces, and in the soil as part of a biological soil crust. Different kinds of lichens have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. … They are relatively self-contained miniature ecosystems in and of themselves.

That’s New York to me: an ecosystem made up of overlapping life forms, something greater than the sum of its parts and its people. It’s the harshest place I’ve ever been, and also the most fertile. When I came to New York for college, like so many people before me, I was thrilled by the city’s crowds and constant activity, and also overwhelmed by them. I felt small, anonymous, insignificant, invisible. And I felt alive, swept up in the bloodstream of something greater than myself.

Maybe lichens are the consummate New Yorkers—unassuming, abundant, tenacious. Above all, they survive, and they transform themselves and each other. They are, as poet Jane Hirshfield writes in our April 2011 issue:

chemists of air,
changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable. …

Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

(See all Orbital Views here)

It kinda looks like a pin cushion from this perspective:

A photo posted by Planet Labs (@planetlabs) on

Two years ago, Michael Carlowicz captioned similar images of the London Array for NASA’s Earth Observatory:

Twenty kilometers (12 miles) from England’s Kent and Essex coasts, the world’s largest offshore wind farm has started harvesting the breezes over the sea. Located in the Thames Estuary, where the River Thames meets the North Sea, the London Array has a maximum generating power of 630 megawatts (MW), enough to supply as many as 500,000 homes.

I took this shot on Thursday during my flight back to D.C. from Portland, Oregon, where I was working remotely for a week while visiting family for my birthday—and I got the perfect gift of unseasonably sunny weather. This pastoral view along the Columbia River is just north of the city, and only until I read the GPS location on my iPhone photo did I realize I was just over Sauvie Island—the largest island along the Columbia and one of the largest river islands in the U.S. The northern half of Sauvie is a wildlife refuge and the southern half has scattered rural homes. It’s also a great place to run wild and eat wild strawberries, as my niece Freya can attest:

For a wonderful little tribute to Portland, check out Rosa’s recent Orbital View on the “City of Roses,” her hometown. (The note made my mother a little verklempt; she moved to the city a decade ago, married a Portland native and—after 50 years of the Air Force and then Army determining where she moved every few years—put down roots in Portland for good.) For an even better in-flight photo departing Portland, check out Rosa’s crystal-clear view of Mt. Hood just east of the city. If you’re a fellow Portlander and have an aerial photo above the city or surrounding area, please send it our way.

(America by Air archive here. Submission guidelines here.)

Bordered by the ocean to the west and Golden Gate Park to the north, the Sunset District is home to about 85,000 people:

Quigley quotes from a real-estate listing:

[The Sunset] is one of San Francisco’s most family-friendly neighborhoods, with sprawling blocks of quaint single-family abodes. The restaurants and bars at western base of Twin Peaks provide lattes to baby-clad mothers while the surfing community holes up on the cool, fog-laden beachfront huts lining the Great American Highway.

If you grew up in the Sunset District and want to share a memory about the neighborhood, let us know.

(See all Orbital Views here)

There’s a lot going on here, as M. Justin Wilkinson explains:

While in orbit over the Brazilian coast, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this photograph of some of the country’s famous coastal lagoons. This view shows a short 20-kilometer (12-mile) stretch of a lagoon shoreline where pointed sand spits jut into waters of Mangueira Lagoon (Lagoa Mangueira). The ends of the spits are under water, growing less visible with increasing depth. [...]

Here’s a great shot of my hometown, Portland, Oregon:

But I didn’t recognize the neighborhood at first, even though it’s a local icon. This is Ladd’s Addition, Portland’s oldest planned residential development. As the city’s parks department explains, it’s named after William Sargent Ladd, who settled in Portland in 1851 after coming west in the California Gold Rush:

He was elected mayor in 1854 and was prominent in every aspect of Portland business activity. In 1891 he decided to subdivide his 126-acre farm on Portland's east side. Inspired by Pierre L’Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C., Ladd designed the plat based on a diagonal street system surrounding a central park. Also included were four diamond-shaped rose gardens located on the points of a compass.

Those rose gardens are important. Portland has been nicknamed the City of Roses since 1888, and it celebrates its local history with a Rose Festival every year. The oldest public rose garden in Portland—near where I grew up on the city’s northern peninsula—has been around since 1909, and its most famous, the International Rose Test Garden, has been operating for almost a century. In addition to growing roses from all over the world, it’s a site for free public concerts and—as I recall from my preschool days—adjacent to a really, really good playground.

Roses may grow like crazy in the laid-back Pacific Northwest, but there’s a lot of work involved in their cultivation. Rose gardens tend to be organized a bit like Ladd’s Addition—beautifully, carefully planned, with everything well pruned and kept within its borders.

Those gardens have something in common with the city as a whole.

This is one surprisingly symmetrical shot:

I immediately see Pop Art, and it almost looks like someone zoomed in too close on a work by Roy Lichtenstein:

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams shares this snap, adding “I can’t tell if the circles or squares are winning this competition”:

A photo posted by Jeff Williams (@astro_jeffw) on

And where precisely are these shapes doing battle? An Instagram commenter points to a plot in Gaines County, Texas, with the coordinates 32°49'14"N 102°26'28"W. Zoom around in this Google map and see if you can find the exact spot without driving yourself mad in a sea of squares and circles (something I have yet to have done). It sure does look right, but it’s hard to find the right color and shape combination:

(See all Orbital Views here)