The best photos of Earth taken from space

The retired astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the challenges and joys of being a photographer in space.

Chris Hadfield: Life on board a spaceship is so busy. People just don’t know. Mission Control schedules your time, there’s this line moving across your computer screen that shows what you’re doing every five minutes for your entire six months on a spaceship.

So it is a dictated and controlled environment up there, and nowhere does it ever say, “Go look out the window.” But you just can’t help yourself. Every time you get ahead of that line, if you give yourself an extra three or four minutes you float through the station on the handrails, you pull yourself down into the cupola window, and you take another look at the world.

And it is so many things all at once. It’s beautiful—it’s just raw, constantly changing beauty pouring by and around you.

It’s instructional: You learn so much about the world. You see how everything actually fits together, and the history of it, and the geology and the geography of it.

But it’s also a feeling of great privilege, of like awe, of like you’ve just walked into the most magnificent art gallery on earth, or into the Sistine Chapel, or into a rain forest or somewhere where suddenly you’re just overwhelmed with the place that you are. It’s an amazing stolen moment, and I stole as many of those as I could.

As astronauts we train more than anybody knows. I had photographers train me. I got qualified to not just use a 35 mm digital camera but Hasselblad cameras with 70 mm film and Aeroflex cameras—and I became an IMAX cameraman and helped make two IMAX movies—and Linhof cameras and the whole gamut of complex photography. With all of those photographers talking about not just portraiture and not just inside, but how to take a good picture of the world and what parts of the world we haven’t seen yet. Some places have a lot of cloud cover, and maybe one day you’ll get a great picture of the Panama Canal or a part of the Amazon that’s never been photographed because it’s always so cloudy.

So you are hyper-prepared to be one of the world’s photographers up there. You’re really trying to make sure that you’re technically competent with the camera, but you’re also artistically capable of understanding how to compose a picture, how to frame it properly, how to recognize something that’s worth taking a picture of.

And you don’t always get it right. I mean the National Geographic photographers, they take thousands of pictures for every one that makes it into the magazine. Same for us. But the world is a very generous photography subject, and you have the best tripod in existence, so it’s a great place to take pictures.

I was lucky enough to fly in space three times. I flew the Space Shuttle twice; I was the pilot of the Russian Soyuz on my third flight; I helped build two space stations; I’ve done a couple spacewalks. And throughout all of those 166 days in space, 2600 times around the world, every chance I could I would try and get to the window and take a picture, because who wouldn’t? It’s just too beautiful and rare a site to ignore.

And so when you total it all up after all of those spaceflights, including while I was outside on the spacewalks, I think I took about 45,000 pictures. And a lot of them are terrible, just things going by or the glare of the atmosphere or out of focus, you’re just trying to make sure that somewhere in there the pictures are good. And what do you do with 45,000 pictures? No one is going to sit down and look at them all.

So a couple of years after I returned from my third space flight I went through all 45,000 and as I went through the 45,000 I would flag oh yeah that’s a good picture, that’s a good picture, that’s a good picture. So I ended up with sort of a nice smaller subset of worthwhile pictures that should be looked at.

And then I thought, if someone was floating next to me at the window of the spaceship, what would I want to show them? If we were going around the world once, where would I want to go, “Hey! Look at that! Wait to you see this”?

“Wait till you see the great eye of the desert on the edge of the Sahara. Or wait until you see the Skeleton Coast ,or the border between the United States and Mexico, or all of the interesting parts of the world that are different than you expect to see.

And I went through all those pictures, the best pictures that I had taken, and chose 150 I thought that really showed the story of the world, and those are my absolute best. Trying to distill this whole planet down to 150 pictures is crazy, it’s an insult to the world, but it was the best I could do to let people actually see what the world looks like. I called it You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes. But my whole thought at the time was, “If I had a good friend sitting next to me, what parts of the world should they see?”

Flying three missions to space, the now-retired astronaut Chris Hadfield took around 45,000 photos. He shares how difficult it is to take pictures in space when your day is highly structured. But the times you can do it - there's a chance to capture something magical.

Impossible Burger hits grocery stores on Friday

Can Impossible Foods beat other brands — like Beyond Meat and Tyson — in the war to dominate the alternative meat industry?

Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Impossible Burger will be available in 27 Gelson's Markets stores in Southern California starting Sept. 20.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Amazon pledges surprisingly bold climate change goals

The move comes one day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are set to walk off the job as part of the global climate strikes.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday plans to swiftly combat climate change.
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