Some parts of the world are marked by such unique human patterns that astronauts learn which country they are overflying just by looking out the windows on the International Space Station. The photograph above shows China’s northern province of Jilin with its pattern of small, tightly packed villages in the classic pattern of rural China.
The villages are typically less than 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) apart and set within a landscape of dark green agricultural fields and forests. The light-toned villages are often situated along streams. By contrast, North America looks markedly rectangular (when observed from space) because of prominent field boundaries. (Those patterns also give astronauts an instant sense of direction because they are mostly aligned north-south/east-west.)
Overlaid on this ancient rural pattern is the large modern Chinese city of Siping (population 615,000 in 2010) and its associated features of straight highways and railroads, a ring road, and an airport. Siping began its growth in the early 1900s when the first railroad connected it to the coast. Battles fought here during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) devastated the old city.
Astronaut photograph ISS045-E-549 was acquired on September 13, 2015, with a Nikon D4 digital camera using a 500 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 a member of the Expedition 45 crew. The image 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 M. Justin Wilkinson, Texas State University, Jacobs Contract at NASA-JSC.