I can’t stop staring at two photos NASA astronaut Don Pettit shared online this week. It’s weep-with-joy level work, our planet and our universe rendered in streaks of light. This is what would have happened if Van Gogh were an astrophotographer.
Pettit is an active NASA astronaut. His last trip to space was for a lengthy stay on the International Space Station in 2012. Pettit popped up on Reddit on Sunday to share an image he named Lightning Bugs. It came from his 2012 ISS visit and is the result of a 15-minute time exposure made from stacking one-minute exposures together.
There’s a lot going on in Lightning Bugs. “In the photo, stars make arcing trails in deep space, while a huge thunderstorm pounds Earth below as seen from the time history of lightning flashes,” Pettit explained. “The atmosphere between them glows green with what scientists call airglow, which has a different excitation mechanism than auroras.”
On Twitter, Pettit shared a view from inside the ISS looking out through the cupola, a rounded viewing area with lots of windows. The astronaut used a fisheye lens and a long exposure time to create the unique image.
Pettit is a proponent of melding science and art. “Below, city lights flow as orange streaks, and faint star trails that show the Earth’s rotation are visible in the lower left,” he tweeted. “Astro can find exciting ways to combine both science and art.”
While NASA has a reputation for serious science, there’s always been an element of artistry in the images astronauts capture in space. Petti gives us a different way of thinking about our planet. The bright streaks highlight movement and time, and how Earth and the people on and above it are never truly holding still.