The power of photos from space

Astronaut Tim Peake's pictures of our planet, taken from the International Space Station, reveal how arbitrary and meaningless national borders really are.

By Oli Reed
Published 9 Nov 2018, 10:13 GMT
Tim Peake took this photo of the rugged landscape of Sinai and the Syrian desert; so ...
Tim Peake took this photo of the rugged landscape of Sinai and the Syrian desert; so peaceful when viewed from the International Space Station, yet one of the most war-torn and disputed territories on Earth. Credits: ESA/NASA
Photograph by Esa, NASA

The reaction to some of your photos of Earth taken from space demonstrates just how much people engage emotionally with pictures of our planet. How they can be a force for good?

Tim Peake: What I tried to capture in the images was what I was feeling as I was seeing it with my naked eye. That varied day to day. When you take photos of areas of the world that might be struggling with political troubles, or war-torn areas, from space they are the most beautiful countries. They’re not actually countries because you don't see the borders, you just see the geology of the planet and how it was formed over billions of years. One photo I took was of Sinai going into Syria and Iraq from the Sahara Desert; that sweeping strip of land. You realise it’s not about countries. You have no idea where Iraq is or where Jordan is or where Israel is or where Syria is. All you see is this incredibly beautiful landscape. It’s a powerful image of this idea of Earth with no borders and it’s very powerful for people on Earth to see it that way.

This image of northwestern African shows the curvature of the Earth and the narrow band of atmosphere; just 16km of nitrogen, oxygen and other constituent gases to protect the planet from nearly all harmful radiation coming from the sun and other stars.
Photograph by NASA, JPL, UCSD, Jsc

One of the most powerful images is when you see how frighteningly thin the Earth’s atmosphere is. If Earth was a football, the atmosphere would be about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. But when you actually get up into space, you can see the curvature of the Earth. Just above it is a tiny line that represents all of the gas in our atmosphere, and that keeps everything on Earth alive. It really does bring it home just how fragile the Earth and our atmosphere is.

When we look up and see a vast expanse of sky, it’s easy to think the sky goes on for eternity and is vast, but no it’s not. Most of our atmosphere is contained within just 16 km above your head; it’s incredibly thin. It reminds us how we need to look after it; it’s not a finite source.

Ash pours from the crater of a volcano on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Photograph by Esa, NASA

Were you conscious of the geo-political power of the images you took from space?

TP: I wasn’t trying consciously to get across any political message, and I wouldn’t focus on any political areas; I was simply taking photographs of what I thought was striking and beautiful. For example, the east coast of Russia along Kamchatka, where you’re almost guaranteed to see a volcano smoking away at some point. The fact that the planet is alive and the beauty of the planet. I wasn’t conscious of having any political agenda there; I was simply trying to capture the Earth as I saw it. But inherent in that message is the fact that the one thing you don't see from space are countries and borders.

There's no scope for national differences on the International Space Station. Here, Tim Peake (left) is pictured with his crewmates, Yuri Malenchenko (centre) of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Tim Kopra of NASA (right).
Photograph by NASA, Seth Marcantel

Does the ISS (essentially astronauts in a box above the planet) encapsulate the idea of one world much more than an intergovernmental body such as the UN does?

TP: What is great about the space station and the space programme – and this will be one of its lasting legacies – is that level of international cooperation and partnership. The scientific community tends to operate at a similar level. It transcends political differences. It has to because if it didn't then clearly we would be losing out on knowledge and research. Space is the same: we operate closely with Russians, Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, Americans and Chinese.

We’re looking soon at flying a European astronaut to the Chinese space station in the 2020s. We try to avoid political differences getting in the way. The ISS wouldn’t have lasted over 20 years if we weren’t able to transcend political differences.


Who owns copyright to the photos you take?

We don't own them. They’re copyright NASA/ ESA and they’re in the public domain, and they can be downloaded free of charge.

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