Astronaut watches the Earth from an ISS porthole: perfect cover for a nonexistent sf novel

Madeleine Robins called this picture of ISS astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson watching the spin far below, "The perfect cover for the perfect unwritten/unread SF novel I wanted to read when I was thirteen." Exactly right.

Astronomy Picture of the Day (via Making Light)


  1. For a very short moment there I thought I was watching a shot from ‘Until the End of the World’. Very pretty.

  2. Outstanding photo! But allow me some nerdery… If you zoom in on the full-size image, the dark parts of the image are badly scattered with hot pixel noise. “OK”, I think, “weight restrictions meant they could only take up a teeny-tiny digicam, which must have been set at a fairly high ISO, hence noisy”. But the EXIF data says it was a full-frame Nikon D2Xs at ISO 200! Which should be effectively noise-free. So what gives? Cosmic radiation causing the noise?

    1. Cosmic radiation is in fact the answer. Doug Wheelock who is currently on the ISS has an excellent twitter feed where he posts excellent photos like these and he mentioned in one of the shots that you could see stars, but you could also see the pixel damage caused by cosmic rays. Just look up “Doug WHeelock Astro Wheels” and you can find many, many incredible shots like these.

      Oh, and I think the biggest mystery is how NASA can expect anyone to get ANY kind of work done up there when they have a distraction like this. I would be glued to that spot 24/7!!!

    2. ShaneAH:

      Photographer with a bit of a nerdy bent here:

      Two things to consider:
      1. The D2Xs was from Nikon was from their last generation of sensors, which wasn’t quite as good at noise control as their current stuff.

      2. This is a pretty high contrast scene, so the areas of darkness here are still effectively black. In a situation like that, you will always see a certain amount of noise no matter what the situation, even if it is a $5000 body. A crappy point and shoot with a tiny little lens would render this scene as a giant mess of noise.

      That being said, I wouldn’t let a minor technical quibble ruin my appreciation of what is, frankly, a magnificent photo.

  3. A lovely picture. It reminds me of the cover of Robert Heinlein’s “Friday” (which WAS a book I read when I was thirteen . . .).

  4. At the top edge of the left upper ‘porthole’, there’s an orange tag or marker. Track down from that, til you hit the background Earth, and you can see a protruberance from the atmosphere. Is that just pixel noise/reflection artefact as well?

    1. @ Anon #7
      I think that anomaly you see there is a “noseprint” smudge from an excited astronaut getting too close to the glass! I know my face would be stuck there!
      OTOH, could be the Chinese have made great progress on their space elevator!

  5. Pls NS, y cn pt hmns n rbt bt y dn’t hv sns f fshn?

    Pl shrt nd wrnkly crg pnts? Wht s ths n d fr ld Nvy?

    Why cn’t wmn n spc b prtryd s fmnn? nd d smthng wth th hr.

  6. I swear to god, there is a SF cover just like that.

    At first, I thought it was CS Freidman’s “In Conquest Born”, but that cover is right here, and isn’t it.

    Still looking, though. I know I’ve seen something like this before.

  7. Wow. Not that they need it, but *that* is a recruiting poster for NASA. Or just about any other space program. Nice picture, Dr. Dyson!

  8. Man, what are you talking about? That’s a hot babe. Nothing wrong with those chinos.

    Plus, when you’ve been in orbit long enough, every babe is a hot babe.

    Awesome picture.

  9. Sigourney Weaver lookalike assures mankind that NASA is on its way to achieving deadlines set out by Aliens.

  10. Is it camera noise or is it some atmospheric phenomenon which apparently mars the curve of the earth, seen through the port in the upper left of this photo?

    1. @Ugly Canuck: The ISS Cupola is a hexagonal pyramid that’s flattened pretty dramatically by the (presumably) wide angle lens used here. The same lens distortion is effecting the earth horizon.

      AFIAK, NASA avoids digitally manipulating in post to preserve the integrity of the images. Hence the uncorrected noise, and sensor hot spots in this image. Sensor dust shows on many images as well.

    2. That looks like something smudged on the window.

      Regarding shadow noise, in addition to what Keith K said, I’m guessing that if you exposed for the earth in this shot everything else would basically be pure black. Kind of like how if you expose for the moon, the stars won’t show up.

      So you’d have to raise the shadow level in post, which will bring out extra noise.

  11. The D2Xs is an old camera. Sensors weren’t as good in those days.
    It takes a while for new tech to make it to earth’s orbit!

  12. Okay NASA, take a look at this photo and tell me again, with a straight face, that no one’s ever had sex on the station.

  13. I’m sitting here in a 69 degree room, with a double-pane window five feet from my right shoulder – outside it’s 31 degrees, and I can feel the difference between the two sides of my body, like sitting around a campfire on a cool night. It just looks like she should not be so comfortable-looking up against the shell of the ISS. Either the surface she’s stretched out on should be a little too hot or too cold, however distractingly beautiful the view.

    1. Facetedjewel,

      There’s nothing on the far side of the window to conduct heat away. I think there are also cooling systems to prevent the station from getting too hot in direct sunlight.

  14. It’s like Honor Harrington’s great-great-great (add more greats as needed) Grandmother. Fabulous picture.

  15. Kosmoid–No hair spray in space, ’cause it would gum up everything, and infrequent opportunities to clean one’s hair. Add zero G which limits you to either short enough to stay out of the way or a pony-tail and your hair options are going to be pretty limited.

    Personally, I think the the elbow looks self-consiously posed. After all, there’s no need to support you head.

  16. The D2X is an older model that doesn’t have the low noise capabilities of the D3 or even the D700. Plus being that the shadow areas are indeed underexposed, noise is a given. It can be removed without a lot of work if it hadn’t already been done.

  17. That pic ain’t science fiction, it’s science fact! I’m too busy seething with envy to bother dreaming of scifi titles.

  18. She’s spent 6 months on the ISS, she has a PhD in chemistry, and she’s the lead singer in an all-astronaut band? She’s like a female Buckaroo Banzai.

  19. Thanks, Owen.

    If the photo was changed so that she appeared to looking at a massive satellite – this could be the cover of John Varley’s ‘Titan’, and the astronaut would be ‘Cirocco’.

  20. I agree it is reminiscent of Michael Whelan’s painting for Robert Heinlein’s Friday.

    Would have made a good nude too. But maybe the Space Station is too chilly. Maybe in a few years someone will take the first nude in space.

  21. Its obvious to us – the whole deal, skyhooks, stations, mining asteroids, boots on Mars: what I really cannot figure is why it isn’t obvious to some others – and particularly the people that vote money for this. Aren’t the commercial opportunities obvious? Aren’t the green opportunities of ripping resources out of naked rocks instead of opencasting the green hills of earth obvious? Aren’t the patriotic tub-thumping advantages obvious, if that floats their boat? Aren’t the manifest destiny arguments obvious?

    Why isn’t everyone just looking at pictures like this and saying, sign me and my taxes up for this – if not me, then my kids have GOT to have this.

    For me, thats the question we all have to answer as a matter of seriousness and urgency, or our kids will be sitting looking at pictures like this as we look at Armstrong on the moon and saying “what went wrong?”

    Here and now, its our responsibility. I thought it would be our generation that sealed lunar tunnels to fire up the hydroponics and get the first base going, but it looks like our responsibility is more serious than that. We have to get humanity fired up about out there. What can we do to make a difference? Seriously: what?

  22. Why can’t women in space be portrayed as feminine? And do something with the hair.

    Oh come ON, people. Seriously? We have a picture of a real live ASTRONAUT who lives on a SPACE STATION who is chilling out, looking at the earth, showing us what it’s like to live and work IN ORBIT IN REAL LIFE, and the big deal here is that it’s a woman who is dressed in work clothes? Yeah, that blue glow you just saw that suddenly turned into a red flash was the doppler shifted point screaming past your head at a significant fraction of c.

    1. Anon #38, it appears you know exactly how fast ‘the point’ is travelling, but have no idea where it is located.

    2. What we need is for a Progress full of Victoria’s Secret gear and a bag full of photo gear. Art shots of cute Astronauts around the Cupola might take weeks…

  23. Kosmoid and Tekna2007, does it ever occur to you that women are actual human beings in their own right, and not just objects of sexual pleasure?

    Seriously, can’t we have a photo of a woman without the comment thread degenerating into a discussion of her hot-or-notness?

    1. does it ever occur to you that women are actual human beings in their own right, and not just objects of sexual pleasure?

      I’m very definitely aware of this and I think I’m on the right side of that issue, but you don’t have any way of knowing that, so no problem.

      I’m also very aware of how much ability, hard work, sacrifice and raw talent it takes to become someone on either side of a camera in that setting.

      Seriously, can’t we have a photo of a woman without the comment thread degenerating into a discussion of her hot-or-notness?

      OK. I kind of thought I was defending her again a “let’s trash women for not looking good in space” sentiment, but OK.

      I also think that when a discussion begins with sci-fi bookcovers, such considerations are not entirely out-of-bounds.

  24. I may not have my personal jetpack- but it makes me so very HAPPY that some folks are living in the kind of future I fantasized about as a teenager!

  25. The editors of Astronomy Picture of the Day (or whoever submitted this photo to them) digitally lightened the original shot.

    The unedited, tweeted direct-from-orbit photo is here, courtesy astronaut Doug Wheelock’s twitpic account:

    The original photo may not show off Tracy Caldwell Dyson as well, but the Earth is a richer blue…

  26. First I thought the photo displayed here looked amazing, but after seeing the original (link’s large image), I find they boosted it too much. The original with the astronaut underexposed seems to me more real and mysterious at the same time. Maybe not ideal for the screen, but the original would definitely look great as a large print on my wall!

  27. The small pinpoint lights that you see in these night images are pixels on the camera’s image sensor blown out by particles of cosmic radiation…one of the hazards of the job out here.

    The photographer says so himself, right here:

  28. Sweet! I saw this “porthole” being launched earlier this year, at about 4 AM on a very cold February morning.

  29. That’s the first photo I’ve seen of the cupola with an astronaut in frame to give a sense of scale. Either that’s a really small woman or it’s an even better view than I imagined.

  30. My god. This picture brought tears to my eyes! Even with telephones the size of Zippo lighters and TVs the size of garage doors, I sometimes forget we’re living in the 21st century.

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