As the 2014 calendar year closes and the solstice marks the turning point in the Sun’s march across the sky, many religions and cultures are celebrating festivals. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah in 2014 stretched from December 16 to 24. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 and the feast of Epiphany on January 5. And in early 2015, Muslims will celebrate Mawlid an-Nabi, the birth of Muhammad, on January 3 (Sunni) and January 8 (Shia).
The cradle of those religions—and of much of modern civilization—was captured on September 7, 2014, in a photograph by an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS). At the time, the ISS was in orbit over Turkey and the photographer was looking east across Cyprus and the Mediterranean Sea.
According to some estimates, there are close to 3.5 billion followers of Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahai—and they can all trace cultural roots back to this region. It is a part of the world where there have been great spiritual, cultural, and military triumphs, and nearly as many tragedies and missed opportunities. Barriers real and perceived have been built here for thousands of years. And yet from space, there are no borders to be seen.
In I.Asimov: A Memoir, science fiction author Isaac Asimov gives us a thought worthy of this turbulent, fertile, and dynamic place and of the peace that many people try to nurture and hope for at this time of year:
The Earth faces environmental problems right now that threaten the imminent destruction of civilization and the end of the planet as a livable world. Humanity cannot afford to waste its financial and emotional resources on endless, meaningless quarrels between each group and all others. There must be a sense of globalism in which the world unites to solve the real problems that face all groups alike.
Can that be done? The question is equivalent to: Can humanity survive?
There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity.
Astronaut photograph ISS040-E-133306 was acquired on September 7, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 20 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 40 crew. It has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Mike Carlowicz.
The above photo of the International Space Station was taken by an astronaut aboard the space shuttle on April 17, 2002. Although its construction is not yet complete, Space Station Alpha began operations in November 2000. It now serves as home to three astronauts as well as dozens of already ongoing science experiments.
Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) have a unique view of the world because of their position in a low orbit (200 nautical miles, 360 kilometers) relative to satellites and their ability to look at any angle out the windows of the spacecraft. ISS crewmembers recently took advantage of their vantage point to photograph a series of oblique views of the Himalayas looking south from over the Tibetan Plateau. At first glance, one might think that the image looks like a picture taken from an airplane, until you remember that the summits of Makalu (left, 8,462 meters, or 27,765 feet) and Everest (right, 8,850 meters, or 29,035 feet) are at the heights typically flown by commercial aircraft. The full mosaic covers over 130 kilometers (80 miles) of the Himalayan front, and could never be seen this way from an airplane.