3/3/08 Don Pettit NASA JSC Houston, TX 77058 281 244-8917

Cities at Night, an Orbital Tour Around the World

Cities at night, an orbital tour around the world [image of Chicago, IL].

Cities at night are strikingly beautiful from an orbital vantage [Image of Buraydah, Saudi Arabia].

As members of Expedition 6 to the International Space Station, [Image of ISS over Earth, circa Expedition 6] we attempted to record these images with our digital still cameras and failed [Image of D. Pettit at Destiny lab window]. The images were blurred due to the rather swift pace of orbital motion coupled with the required time exposures [Image of New York, NY metro area at night].

However, we managed to assemble a tracking system from spare parts [Image of D. Pettit with barn-door tracker] on space station that amateur astronomers will recognize as a barn door tracker. [Video of D. Pettit using barn-door tracker onboard ISS.] Using this tracking system, we were able to manually cancel orbital motion and obtain for the first time, truly sharp images of cities at night from space.

Here is Montreal Canada, our best attempt at a hand held image.

And here is Montreal taken using our orbital improvised tracking system where detail is now seen down to about 60 meters.

Available from the internet, we are use to seeing images of the world at night from the DMSP satellite system.

These black and white images are limited in detail to objects about 2 miles across as seen in this mosaic along the eastern US coast.

And here is a similar mosaic [Image mosaic of U.S. eastern seaboard] made from our images taken from space station where we can zoom down in “Google Earth style” with full color to near 60 meter resolution.

Now we are ready to take an orbital tour around world of cities at night.

Zurich, Switzerland.

Milan, Italy.

Madrid, Spain.

Cities at night are caught in a triangle between culture, geography, and technology.

Athens, Greece.

Antwerp, Belgium.

Cities in Europe display a characteristic network of roads that radiate outwards like glowing spider webs.

London, with a tour down the southern English coast to Bristol.

Cairo, Egypt, with the Nile River seen as a dark shape running south to north. The three spots in the center are the Pyramids of Giza which are well lit at night. A journey up the Nile brings us to the big bend, past Quanah and Luxor where the Valley of the Kings is peacefully dark. Tel Aviv to the left; Jerusalem to the right.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Showing multi colors, the cities in the Middle East are strikingly beautiful from space.

Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the road winding eastward towards Mecca. And here is Mecca seen from space at night.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Oil field fires near Kuwaiti City.

The northwest coast of India. India has a unique orbital signature, where a multitude of small village lights are scattered over the continent, diffusely seen as if masked by a veil.

Karachi, Pakistan.

Manila, Philippines, Where its geometry is dictated by water fronts.

Rangoon, Myanmar, with a skip of moonlight reflecting off the water.

Hong Kong.

Here is a mosaic moving from the tip of South Korea near Busan to the north Kyushu Coast of Japan near Fukuoka City. Midway in the Korea Strait is a fleet of fishing boats luring their catch with intense xenon lights, appearing as unfamiliar members of the zodiac.

Tokyo, Japan. The cities in Japan have a distinct blue-green cast. From this, one can immediately recognize that your orbit is over Japan.

Nagoya, Japan.

Brisbane, Australia, moving down the coast to Cape Byron.

The fabled Alice Springs.

And more remote, Eyre Lake by moonlight, showing only a few dots of humanity.

Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the older parts of town are seen in blue-green from mercury vapor lighting and the newer boroughs are yellow-orange from sodium vapor lighting.

The coastal city of Sao Vicente comes into view.

Mexico City.

El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. An example in one area that shows the imprint of culture on the display of lighting.

Phoenix, Arizona, which characterizes western U.S. cities with a north-south, east-west grid that abruptly fades into darkness at the edge of town.

Bend, Oregon. Rural areas are interesting not from what is seen, but rather what is not seen at all.

San Francisco Bay area.

Miami, Florida.

We now have a data base of over 4000 images of cities at night, systematically taken all around the world.

Houston, Texas, with a skip of fog. No display from space is complete without at least one image of Houston, where I45 is visible all the way down to Galveston Island.

A mosaic from Los Angeles down the coast highway to San Diego.

The imprint of culture, geography, and technology allows one from orbit to identify what part of the nighttime world you are over simply from the display of lights below.

Our nation’s capitol, Washington DC, clearly visible is the outline of the District of Columbia.

The brightest spot on Earth—Las Vegas, Nevada—our beacon for Humanity.

We do not construct our cities by how they might look from space, cities at Night may very well be one of the most beautiful, unintentional consequences of humanity. [Image of New Brunswick, Canada].


By Dan Pettit. April 22, 2008.