Sunset in space

An edge-on image of Earth's atmosphere

An edge-on image of Earth's atmosphere, taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, reveals different layers and clouds.

  • Edge-on view of Earth’s atmosphere
  • Atmospheric layers, clouds visible
  • Astronauts see 16 sunsets and sunrises per day!

This spectacular image of sunset over the Indian Ocean was taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The image presents an edge-on, or limb view, of the Earth’s atmosphere as seen from orbit.

The Earth’s curvature is visible along the horizon line, or limb, that extends across the image from centre left to lower right. Above the darkened surface of the Earth, a brilliant sequence of colours roughly denotes several layers of the atmosphere.

Deep oranges and yellows appear in the troposphere, which extends from the Earth’s surface to 6–20 km high. This layer contains over 80 percent of the mass of the atmosphere and almost all of the water vapour, clouds, and precipitation. Several dark cloud layers are visible within this layer.

Variations in the colours are due mainly to varying concentrations of either clouds or aerosols (airborne particles or droplets).

See the full-size image here (new window).

The pink to white region above the clouds appears to be the stratosphere; this atmospheric layer generally has few or no clouds, and it extends up to approximately 50 km above the Earth’s surface.

Above the stratosphere, blue layers mark the upper atmosphere (including the mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere), as it gradually fades into the blackness of outer space.

The ISS was located over the southern Indian Ocean when this picture was taken, with the astronaut looking towards the west. Astronauts aboard the ISS see 16 sunrises and sunsets per day due to their high orbital velocity (greater than 28,000 km per hour).

The multiple chances for photography are fortunate because at that speed, each sunrise or sunset only lasts a few seconds!

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Caption adapted from information issued by William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.

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