A brilliant crescent moon and sunset, taken from space

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) regularly take incredible pictures, and one of the last to be presented by NASA is no exception. This photo of “a crescent moon hovering over an orbital sunset” was posted on New Years Eve and apparently “offers a symbolic end to the year 2021 and a look to the next goal from NASA for human-crewed exploration. “

What it shows

Related: 17 photos of the new James Webb Space Telescope

What I love most about many photos taken in space is the way they blend science and art, much like photography does. While the photo of the moon rising above the setting sun is absolutely stunning (come on, look at those colors and the subtle shadow details in the dark side of the moon!), Why does it look like it is? also fascinating.

The photo shows an orbital sunset that changes from orange to dark blue between the dark surface of the Earth and “the darkness of space”. Each color band approximately corresponds to a different layer of the earth’s atmosphere: troposphere (up to 6.2 miles), stratosphere (6.2 miles to about 31 miles), mesosphere (31 miles to about 53 miles), and thermosphere (about 53 miles up to somewhere between 311 and 621 miles, depending on solar activity and other factors).

Each layer has a different color because of a phenomenon called rayleigh scatteringwhere visible light (and other electromagnetic radiation) is scattered by particles smaller than its wavelength, in this case the air particles in the layers of the earth’s atmosphere. The colors we see are scattered light, and because the composition and density of each layer in the atmosphere is different, each scatters different amounts of light and is therefore a different color. (Of course, the transitions between the layers aren’t very hard, which is why we get such a beautiful gradient.)

How the photo was taken

The photo was taken on December 6, 2021, as the ISS passed over the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand about 262 miles above the Earth’s surface. There are currently seven astronauts on the station (four from NASA, two from the Russian space agency Roscosmos and one from the European Space Agency), although we do not know who pushed the shutter in this case. One thing that has always fascinated me about photos of the ISS is how normal the equipment used is. This photo was taken with a Nikon d5 and a 200mm lens, which was probably a Nikon 70-200mm f / 2.8E. And while it’s certainly top of the line, it’s still the sort of thing that many professional photographers use on a daily basis here on Earth. It’s not that astronauts use unique equipment, they have a unique perspective.


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