NASA makes Earth become art

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, December 04, 2012

This image from Earth as Art shows Carnegie Lake in Western Australia, which “fills with water only during periods of significant rainfall. In dry years, it is reduced to a muddy marsh … In this Landsat 7 image from 1999, flooded areas appear dark blue or black. Vegetation appears in shades of dark and light green, and sands, soils, and minerals appear in a variety of colors.” But doesn’t it also look like a growing Protozoan colony? // Credit Earth as Art.
If you

a) have recently lamented the arts-sciences disconnect,
b) would like to make your coffee table look smarter,
c) enjoy thinking about all the satellites staring down at us, and/or
d) think Earth is a cool place to live,

consider checking out NASA’s new book Earth as Art, which showcases 75 satellite images of our planet. Taken by the Terra, Landsat 5, Landsat 7, EO-1, and Aqua satellites, they leave no doubt about “aesthetic beauty in the patterns, shapes, colors, and textures of the land, oceans, ice, and atmosphere,” as the book’s introduction states.

From Akpatok Island to the Zagros Mountains and from vortices to volcanoes, Earth as Art not only displays large-scale beauty, but also provides handy information about each phenomenon, like, “Swirling clouds line up in a formation known as a von Kármán street. This phenomenon is named after aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán … one of the principal founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” Who knew?

The satellites didn’t collect just visible light but also infrared and microwave radiation, meaning that if you flew above the atmosphere, you would not necessarily see the world as it looks in these images. By gathering information outside our own eyes’ capabilities, the satellites allow researchers to determine not only how the Earth appears but also what it’s made of, how its components are mixed together, and the temperatures of those components.

What was most amazing to me, looking through all 158 pages, was how many of these gigantic geological features look similar to tiny biological things seen through a powerful microscope. I’m not sure how to interpret that metaphorically, but I feel like someone should.

If you’ve ever doubted that we inhabit a varied, complex, patterned, pretty place — and it’s easy enough to forget when you’re occupied with day-to-day tasks in your hometown and not currently on your yearly camping trip to the Tikahau Atoll — this publication is a remedy. As the book’s introduction says, “Truly, by escaping Earth’s gravity we discovered its attraction.”

You can get a free PDF copy by going to You can then proceed to make image after image your desktop background as you think to yourself, “No, this is the best one. No, wait, this is the best one.” Or at least that’s what I did.

To download the iPad app, which allows zooming and provides access to additional information, visit If you’d like to have that coffee-table copy, find it for $44.00 at the US Government Printing Office. More images are also available at: and

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