Since America's shuttle fleet retired two years ago, it's sometimes easy to forget that there are still people in space. But Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command a space mission, did his best to make people remember that the International Space Station is in orbit, whether it was:
• The first-ever music video from space, his beautiful rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity, above right.
• His Twitter banter from space with William Shatner, who played Capt. James T. Kirk on the original 1960s Star Trek. "Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain," Hadfield tweeted to the starship captain. "And we're detecting signs of life on the surface."
• A couple of school kids asking Hadfield what happens when you wring out a wet washcloth in space. So he demonstrated. "It's becoming a tube of water," Hadfield says as he twists it.
In honor of their 146-day mission and the safe return last week of Commander Hadfield and two crewmates, Phil Plait, an astronomer who blogs for Slate, assembled this annotated gallery of his favorite photos Hadfield sent from space.
If you need a definition for the word "meander," this river in Bolivia ought to do. The sun is well off to the right (the cloud shadows give that away), and so the glowing orange color is most likely due to the rising sun reflecting off the water in the river.
Japan Ice Swirls
Frigid currents carrying ice swirl off the coast of Japan, forming delicate and lovely patterns in the ocean.
This is the volcano Mount Okmok in the Aleutian Islands. Covered in snow, half-hidden by clouds, it took some sleuthing to track down its identity once Hadfield tweeted the picture. It's about 12,000 years old and erupts every couple of centuries.
From space, many signs of humanity are visible. Here, a lone airplane cuts its way across the Tatra mountains in the Carpathians.
Eddies in the Stream
When water, land, and air interact, the results can be delicate and gorgeous. These swirls are called von Kármán vortices, formed when air blows past an obstruction, like, say Isla Soccoro off the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Impact of space travel
This shot shows Canada's mighty St. Lawrence River. But my astronomer's eye immediately noticed the circular feature at right: the Manicouagan crater, formed when an asteroid or comet hit about 200 million years ago.
As clouds flutter past the tiny island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, they form a herringbone pattern. Together with the island, that takes on a literal meaning: It really does look like a fish skeleton!
The beauty and threat of Vesuvius
I love this picture: Looking down the throat of Mount Vesuvius, surrounded by towns and cities. Over a half-million people live in the "red zone" of the volcano's blast region.
Eye see you
A self-portrait: Hadfield looks through a drop of water — in space, it's not shaped like a tear drop — as they both float on board the International Space Station. A roughly spherical droplet of water acts as a lens, refracting the image of his face so that it appears upside down.
The Richat Structure is a geologic dome in Mauritania. This is an uplifted and folded terrain, with eons of erosion exposing its interior structure. One of the most recognizable natural features seen from space, the concentric circles are due to different types of rocks composing the structure.
Black Sea, blue microbes
A huge phytoplankton bloom stains the Black Sea blue. This microscopic algae sometimes go forth and multiply in such numbers that— duh—the bloom can be seen from space.
When I saw this, I thought it was artificial, but in fact it's Monte Argentario, a peninsula off the western coast of Italy. It used to be an island, but over time, sea and river currents dumped sediment into the area, eventually connecting it to the Tuscany region of Italy's mainland.
Emerald Isle Storm
A huge low-pressure system looms over Ireland in this stunning shot, which also features long, linear cloud chains called "cloud streets" to the lower left.
How you dune?
I probably could've guessed this a sand dune field, but geez, it looks more like a close-up of a rusty piece of metal. Or Mars. But it's Earth, in fact, the Rub' al Kahli region in Saudi Arabia.
Glaciers in the Himalayas send down tongues of ice into the valley below. The low sun in this picture really brings out the relief, highlighting the rugged topography of the region.
Fixing a leak
Days before Hadfield was to return to Earth, one of the station's cooling systems sprung a leak, with ammonia snowflakes blowing out into space. A spacewalk quickly fixed it. Hadfield took this picture of two crewmates — including Tom Marshburn, who came home with him — after the work.