The official purpose of the International Space Station is Science: Astronauts living on the orbital laboratory spend the majority of their time in space testing microgravity's effect on physical objects, fellow animals, and themselves. The less-official purpose of the International Space Station, however, is Wonder. That there are, at this very moment, six human beings hanging out in space is a source of delight and maybe even inspiration to many of us here on Earth. And the fortunate few who get to do the hanging out take advantage of their vaunted environs, spending a good deal of their free time on the ISS taking pictures of the planetary scenery that spreads out 200 miles below them.
And I really do mean "a good deal of time." Since astronauts first took up residence there in 2000, they have snapped more than a million pictures from the station. That's nearly 30,000 images per Expedition.
And nearly all of those images have been archived on NASA's servers -- and, by default, are in the public domain. So the techologist Nathan Bergey did something great: He took NASA's data set and plotted the earth-based coordinates of the images taken from space. What resulted are graphics that double as hauntingly ethereal maps of the planet. Bergey archived only images that he found in NASA's database and that had a known latitude and longitude. So, he notes, "it's not necessarily every single image ever taken, but it's close."
As you can see from the red-and-white image above -- which represents all the Earth images taken from space, in the aggregate -- astronauts tend to focus their lenses on land. (Which makes sense, Bergey says: "Photos of clouds over an otherwise blank ocean get old after a while.")
What's less evident, though, is who is responsible for which photos. Since NASA's dataset included information about photos' Expeditions-of-origin, Bergey created individual maps for each expedition.
Here are the first nine Expeditions:
And the next:
And the next:
And the next:
It's striking, the variation -- some of which came down to technological capability, sure, but much of which came down to something more human: astronaut interest. Chris Hadfield, current ISS denizen and Commander of flight engineer for the current Expedition, has gotten quite a reputation as a cosmic photographer. He has nothing, though, on Don Pettit -- who is, Bergey points out, "single-handedly responsible for almost half the images taken on orbit." The thick red lines of Expeditions 30/31? That's Pettit and his camera.
And yet, as a trend, photography has seemed to increase in popularity over time. And that's made evident in another map Bergey made, this one comparing the photos taken by various Expeditions.
Here's another ethereal map of Earth, broken down by Expedition-of-origin:
And here's that same map, plotted against a traditional map of Earth -- a veil of purples and greens covering the layout we know so well: