Did you know you actually can’t see the Great Wall of China from space? One of the greatest myths about the view of Earth from space is that the only man-made landmark you can see with the naked eye is the Great Wall of China. Some corrupt this statement further by saying you can see it from the moon (Earth really just looks like a marble at that distance). But a Chinese astronaut at the International Space Station disproved the theory and reported that the wall is almost completely invisible to the naked eye.
You can, however, see some fantastical natural and man-made phenomena from space. Astronauts at the ISS can see some extremely fine details on the Earth’s surface, and if they travel in Low Earth Orbit, they can see even closer. In space, astronauts can observe weather patterns, track cities in the dark, and even see the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Astronauts might just have the best view on Earth (pun intended), because they can see multiple countries at once, and by extension, countless geographical features.
Even though you can’t see the Great Wall, you can easily spot these bizarre things on Earth from space without any outside equipment.
25 Phytoplankton Blooms
Phytoplankton might be a microscopic species, but when these bacteria get together, they can turn into a watercolour painting visible from space. These tiny plants aren’t visible up close, but the satellite images we have from NASA show how massive the blooms can get.
Though these tiny particles can take up huge parts of the ocean, “phytoplankton bloom” is just a fancy term for algae growth. A phytoplankton bloom is an explosive growth of the plants, and can grow rapidly over a short period of time. Satellites help track the expansion of blooms, and whether they might be harmful to the environment.
24 Desert Roads
Deserts can be some of the most mesmerising landscapes when photographed from space, from the rolling dunes of the Sahara to the rocky red Sonoran. Deserts are so much more than large expanses of sand, but we often don’t get the full view of them.
In space, though, astronauts can look down and see tiny threads of road crisscrossing through them, because unlike mountainous or forested landscapes, deserts provide almost no cover to conceal roads and other manmade objects. If they look closely, maybe they can see people on horseback bound for California crossing the Arizona desert.
23 London's River Thames
London's River Thames is one of the most famous rivers in the world, having been the main geographical feature for the building of the city of London, some 2,000 years ago. It winds and snakes through some of the world’s most iconic landmarks, and you can take boat tours along it to see another side of London.
But if you really want to see a unique view of the Thames, fly up to the ISS, where the river is as visible as it is from Tower Bridge. You may not think that the Thames is so huge, but at 215 miles long and 18 miles and its widest, it’s easily visible from space.
22 Earth's Atmosphere
We can’t see it down here, but it’s a necessary part of what makes Earth livable. We (and other animals) need it to breathe, to grow plants, to protect us from the sun—it's the atmosphere.
The troposphere is what Earthlings breathe and live in, and it’s the layer of the atmosphere that lies closest to the Earth itself, but our planet has four other layers to it that extend over 6,000 miles above the actual land. When astronauts look at Earth from the ISS, a blue haze hangs over the planet, and while we might dismiss it as just the “sky,” it’s really our atmosphere.
21 Open-Pit Mines
Maybe not the prettiest sight from either space or Earth, open-pit mines are huge and can be seen from thousands of miles above Earth. Open-pit mines are exactly what they sound like—mines that are uncovered and aren’t underground tunnels, so you can have a deep, extensive pit for mining and see all of it, almost like a canyon.
The most visible open-pit mine from space is the Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah, and it’s a favourite for astronauts to photograph. The mine has been in operation for over 100 years, so it’s got a well dug out pit for far away viewing.
20 Dubai's Palm Islands
Dubai is no stranger to being extravagant, and as one of the richest cities in the world, it definitely doesn’t need an excuse. It even has its own synthetic islands, called the Palm Islands after their palm tree-like shape. The creation of the three islands, Palm Jumeirah, Deira, and Palm Jebel Ali, began in 2001 and has yet to be finished, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still see them from the ISS.
Their distinctive shapes make them an easy spot from space—all you have to do is look for the fronds jutting into the sea from the mainland. You can bet they’re as fancy on ground level, too, as they’re home to housing, a train station, and a resort.
19 Ganges River Delta
The Ganges River cuts through the Indian subcontinent, and is as culturally significant as it is geographically. For thousands of years, Hindus have worshipped at the banks of the Ganges, and used its water in religious ceremonies.
The Ganges River Delta flows into the Bay of Bengal near Bangladesh and is one of the biggest in the world. When seen from space, its spidery channels look like veins feeding the ocean, and the naked eye can see all its intricate patterns flowing, picking up sediment and algae as it sweeps into the bay.
Wildfires can cause major devastation, and in a matter of hours can grow to swallow entire neighbourhoods or masses of forest, so it’s probably not a shock that you can see their huge plumes of smoke from space.
Wildfires ravaged the state of California in 2018, and NASA was all over the satellite images of the fires. The past year was a rough one for the entire state, having much of its land eaten by flames, but observation from beyond the atmosphere can help scientists study the patterns of wildfires and possibly help prevent them in the future.
17 Almería Greenhouses
If you’ve ever eaten a piece of fresh fruit, chances are it came from Spain. The greenhouses at Almería produce a large amount of the world’s fresh produce, but whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen. There’s so much land space covered by the greenhouses that not only can you see them from space, but they’re actually changing the climate of the surrounding area.
The greenhouses reflect sunlight in this small, Mediterranean corner of Spain so much that they’re cooling down regional temperatures and radically changing the local environment. They feed much of the world, but at this cost, is it really worth it?
16 India-Pakistan Border
Sometimes the things we can see from space are the result of our misdoings as a society here on Earth, but maybe seeing them from so far away will give us a different perspective on our mistakes. The border of India and Pakistan is the perfect example of this, and it glows bright orange in the night when gazed upon from above.
The border, which is heavily fortified, is a reflection of the political and cultural tensions between the two nations in the past century. Aside from a few glowing cities around it, the photos of the border show little more than the bright border.
Oddly enough, bridges are some of the most visible man-made objects from space. Now, you might think that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge might be one of those big enough to see from thousands of miles away, and astronauts and satellites can often see it, but even smaller bridges crossing the Bay Area show up in space images.
In fact, astronauts at the ISS photographed a bridge in San Francisco thinking it was the mighty Golden Gate, but found out later they had mistakenly photographed one of the city’s minor bridges instead.
14 Seasons & Weather
You've probably noticed that when astronauts photograph mountains, they’ll be covered in snow, or deserts will be red, so it’s probably pretty obvious that you’ll see weather changes in places that have different seasons. If an astronaut didn’t remember what the date was, they could make a pretty good guess by looking down at the seasons.
Similarly, since they’re far above the clouds, they can see weather patterns, most noticeably storms. Satellites are the most advanced storm-tracking technology we have, and are used by your local weather station to advise of poor weather conditions.
13 Major Highways
The myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from space has been disproved by the fact that if you could, that would mean you could see most roads across the globe. Of course, that would mean much of our view of Earth would be of roads, but this just isn’t true.
You can, however, see most major highways from the ISS or Low Earth Orbit, especially at night. Belgian highways are particularly bright with illumination, with 335,000 lights on 150,000 lampposts, according to phys.org. But to cut costs and energy, Belgium’s highway lights may soon get a little dimmer.
12 Dust Storms
Like changes in weather patterns, satellites can quickly pick up on dust storms gathering in dry climates. Looking at pictures of Earth’s dust storms, you might think they’re taken on Mars, which has some incredibly violent winds.
Entire landscapes can be obscured by the huge clouds of dust, and like a whiteout, can make it impossible to tell which way is up. They’re a lot less intimidating from space, though, and look more like gently swirling sand on a windy day at the beach. Some of them can even swirl around almost like a brown hurricane and are just as menacing.
11 The Himalaya Mountains
Mountains provide some of the most spectacular views here on Earth, but the view is no less breathtaking from above. If we can send spacecraft to Mars and capture its mountains, then our closer satellites will definitely send back some stunning pictures of our own mountain ranges.
The Himalayas, which separate the Indian subcontinent from Asia and are the tallest mountains on Earth, jut out from the land and stretch to reach toward space, almost as if they’re asking to be looked down on. If you’ve ever flown over mountains on a plane, the view of the Himalayas from space is somewhat similar, if slightly miniaturised.
10 Borders Between Wealthy & Developing Nations
When you look at Earth from space, everything seems distorted, like our petty disagreements with our neighbours, whether on a small or large scale. In the end, we all share this one planet, regardless of borders.
That’s why the borders between developing and developed nations are so noticeable from space. When you look at the Earth at night, you might see that certain countries are lit up brightly while the land mass next to them sits in darkness. The brightest example of this is the boundary between the Koreas—if you look, South Korea is well lit with cities, while its northern neighbour is almost entirely dark.
In school, you might have had a map of Earth at night hanging on your classroom wall (maybe you were even able to pick out your city). These dark posters were speckled with white spots, like paint splatters across a canvas.
Those white splotches actually reflect the light that cities give off at night, and while they can look cool on paper, the view from the sky is so much more incredible. Imagine the Earth glowing beneath you, and most of it is dark while people sleep, but the cities give off a warm orange haze like tiny fires.
8 Volcanic Activity
Volcanoes can be majestic or intimidating, depending on how you look at them. Their power can cause mass devastation, but they also assist in the rejuvenation of the planet. The Hawaiian Islands were created from volcanoes, which are still active today and are currently changing the shape and size of the islands.
Hawaii’s Kilauea eruption in 2018 caught the world’s attention as it bubbled and spilled, sending a cloud of ash up so high it was visible from space. Space.com even reported that a tiny red fire was seen on the Earth’s surface by Ricky Arnold at the ISS.
7 Great Pyramids Of Giza
Unfortunately, you can’t see the Great Wall of China, but you can, in fact, see the Great Pyramid of Giza, another man-made structure bearing the title “Great.” You can see all three of the pyramids at Giza, but the great pyramid, Khufu, stands out the most.
The oldest and largest pyramid can be seen tall and proud next to the two others, and was first photographed by NASA astronauts in 2001. A famous photograph from the Space Station Alpha clearly shows the three pyramids, recognisable by the shadow that reveals their shape.
6 Grand Canyon
Although photos of man-made landmarks might catch our eye first, the natural wonders of the world are just as impressive from space. Arizona’s Grand Canyon attracts millions of visitors each year, and whether you see it from its viewing platforms or by helicopter tour, it’s a sight to behold.
The Grand Canyon is so huge that you can see it from space, though it looks more like a winding river than a canyon. When you see photos of it, you might be stunned at how massive it is, or how small it appears.
5 Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, stretching about 1,500 miles across the coast of Australia. Below the surface, the Great Barrier Reef is a colour explosion, home to billions of fish and coral species. The reef is the largest structure made of living organisms and, of course, can be seen from space.
The fact that it can be seen from space is hugely impressive since the reef is alive, and shows up almost like broken sandbars off the coast. Recently, the reef has been threatened due to climate change and satellite images help track its health.
4 Amazon Rainforest Deforestation
Sometimes, images from space can show us really sobering pictures of our planet. We know that deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is a huge problem, with much of it being cut down in the last decade to make room for industries in South America.
NASA has released recent photos of the rainforest, showing masses of brownish coloured land where all of the trees have been harvested. In August 2014, NASA took photos of huge fires ravaging the Amazon, which were intentionally set to clear large amounts of forest quickly. Needless to say, this is detrimental to the biosphere and can destroy local habitats and animal populations.
3 Maha Kumbh Mela Festival
India's Ganges River is the site of many holy ceremonies for Hindus, and certain festivals can attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers. Kumbh Mela festivals are held on the banks of rivers for Hindus to bathe in sacred waters, and the Maha Kumbh Mela is the biggest of these festivals, held once every 12 years.
The Maha Kumbh Mela festival draws millions of people per day to the pilgrimage site in Allahabad and is the world’s largest religious festival. The gathering didn’t go under the radar of satellites, either, and in the images, you can see the congregation of pilgrims. Look in the top left quadrant of this photo, and you’ll see the mass of people near the water.
2 Amazon River
There's nothing small about the Amazon, from the rainforest to the river to the mosquitoes. Though we can’t see the bugs from space, we can see just about everything else, and that includes the Amazon River. The river, which is the second largest river after the Nile (sometimes it’s considered the longest).
The Amazon shows up in satellite pictures like a sandy-coloured snake in the dark blue and green backdrop of the forest. It’s so long that even if you zoom out with a camera lens from space, you won’t be able to capture the whole river.
Hurricanes are perhaps the most amazing storms that satellites capture photos of, and all mature hurricanes can be seen from space. The characteristic spiral shape you see when you watch hurricanes being tracked on the weather station shows up clearly in pictures and sometimes with the naked eye.
Hurricane Florence, which tore through North Carolina in September 2018, was carefully followed from space as it made landfall. Cameras on board the ISS captured photos of the monster storm just after it touched the American coastline. These photos might look scary, but they help to track the weather and prevent widespread disaster.
References: BBC, Mental Floss, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, NASA, space.com, phys.org