Astronauts on the space station see vibrant desert patterns, roiling storms, and volcanic eruptions. These are the best photos ever taken from the ISS.

Backdropped by New Zealand and the Cook Strait in the Pacific Ocean, astronauts Robert L. Curbeam Jr. (left) and Christer Fuglesang (right) participate in an extravehicular activity (EVA).

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Backdropped by New Zealand and the Cook Strait in the Pacific Ocean, astronauts Robert L. Curbeam Jr. (left) and Christer Fuglesang (right) participate in an extravehicular activity (EVA).
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NASA

As of this week, the International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting Earth for 21 years, and the astronauts on board have been taking breathtaking photos for almost as long.

The first module of the space station launched into orbit on November 20, 1998, and the first crew of astronauts arrived two years later. Humans have lived onboard the ISS continuously in the 13 years since – the longest-lasting human presence in space.

In that time, they’ve taken millions of photos. The views can sometimes be hard to believe.

“How can something so beautiful be tolerated by human eyes?” NASA astronaut Mike Massimino explained to the Washington Post.

Here are the best photos ever taken from the space station.


The International Space Station (ISS) celebrates its 21st birthday this week. The station’s first module launched into orbit on November 20, 1998.

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Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy takes a break during a six-hour spacewalk to help with assembly and maintenance on the International Space Station, August 22, 2013.
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Johnson Space Center

The first crew of astronauts arrived on November 2, 2000. They started snapping photos soon after.

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A glaciated area at the headwaters of the Rio de la Colonia in southern Chile, December 2000.
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NASA

Astronauts have been capturing their breathtaking views from space ever since. They’ve taken millions of photos.

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Nearly the full length of Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, September 6, 2016.
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NASA

Source: NASA


Usually six people live and work together in the station, orbiting Earth about every 90 minutes.

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A narrow barrier island protects the Lagoon of Venice from storm waves in the northern Adriatic Sea, May 9, 2014.
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NASA

Source: NASA


That means they see 16 sunrises and sunsets every day.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this photo to Twitter on March 1, 2016, writing “Rise and shine! My last #sunrise from space then I gotta go! 1 of 5. #GoodMorning from @space_station! #YearInSpace.”
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NASA/Scott Kelly

Source: NASA


Today, the ISS orbits about 250 miles above Earth.

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The sun’s glint reflects off the Pacific Ocean shadowed by a line of cumulonimbus clouds, July 20, 2018.
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NASA

The astronauts inside don’t always know or share much detail about the sights they see. But many say they never get bored with the views.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this photo of Australia taken from the International Space Station on Twitter with the caption, “#EarthArt A single pass over the #Australian continent. Picture 15 of 17. #YearInSpace.”
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NASA/Scott Kelly

“I’m not sure I’d want to be in the same room with someone who could get tired of that,” astronaut Kathy Sullivan told National Geographic.

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As the International Space Station passed over the deserts of central Iran, a crew member caught this unusual geological pattern, February 14, 2014. When wind erodes layers of rock that have folded together over time, it exposes the shape and color of the folds.
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NASA/JSC

Source: National Geographic


Some of the most colorful photos come from astronaut Scott Kelly, who shared his favorite views on social media.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this photo of the Mediterranean coast of France taken from the International Space Station on Instagram, March 2016.
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NASA/Scott Kelly

From 2015 to 2016, Kelly spent 340 consecutive days on the space station. It was the longest single human spaceflight ever.

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Scott Kelly posted this photo to Twitter on July 25, 2015 with the caption, “#Goodevening #Japan. Showing @Astro_Kimiya how to take pictures of #Earth at night. #YearInSpace.”
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NASA/Scott Kelly

Source: NASA


When they fly over cloud-free cities, astronauts can see details that seem tiny from above.

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Tunisia’s second city and major port of Sfax, June 19, 2015. Brilliantly colored salt ponds lie south of the old city.
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NASA

On cloudless nights, some views are even more clear. They call Paris “the city of lights” for a reason.

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Around midnight local time on April 8, 2015, astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this photograph of Paris.
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NASA

Sometimes the clouds themselves make beautiful shapes. Astronauts can watch big storms from above.

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Thunderstorms roll over the South China Sea, July 29, 2016.
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NASA

They can even peer into the eyes of hurricanes.

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Astronaut Nick Hague, aboard the International Space Station, posted this photograph of Hurricane Dorian to Twitter on Sept. 2, 2019. He added, “You can feel the power of the storm when you stare into its eye from above. Stay safe everyone!”
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NASA/Nick Hague

When the Caribbean isn’t plagued by cyclones, the Bahamas are a calm blue oasis from the astronaut’s perspective.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this picture of the Bahamas taken from the International Space Station on Twitter on July 19, 2015 with the caption, “#Bahamas, the strokes of your watercolors are always a refreshing sight. #YearInSpace.”
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NASA/Scott Kelly

This frozen lake in the Himalayas reveals a different kind of blue oasis.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this photo on Twitter with the caption, “Cool frozen lake in #Himalayas! #YearInSpace,” January 6, 2016.
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NASA/Scott Kelly

The views aren’t always so calming. Volcano eruptions are easy to see from space.

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On the morning of June 22, 2019, astronauts in the ISS captured the plume of ash and gases rising from the erupting Raikoke Volcano on the Kuril Islands in the North Pacific.
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NASA

“Not many artists in this world are as creative as Mother Nature,” ISS commander Alexander Gerst told NASA about this image.

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The west coast of southern Africa, captured from the ISS, April 2019.
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ESA/NASA-A.Gerst

Source: NASA


The aurora borealis is one of nature’s most fascinating artworks. It appears when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere.

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The aurora borealis, or the “northern lights,” over Canada is sighted from the space station near the highest point of its orbital path, September 15, 2017.
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NASA/JSC

Source: NASA


ISS residents can see the same phenomenon on the other side of the globe — the aurora australis.

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The Aurora Australis on June 25, 2017, as seen from the International Space Station.
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NASA

Human activities can seem artistic from above, too — like this launch of a Russian spacecraft.

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From aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Christina Koch photographed the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft ascending into space after its launch from Kazakhstan on Wednesday, September 25, 2019.
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NASA/Christina Koch

Few people have enjoyed these views: 239 people from 19 countries have visited the ISS.

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Scott Kelly posted this photo taken from the International Space Station to Twitter on September 23, 2015 with the caption, “#GoodMorning to the Holy City of #Mecca #Makkah! #YearInSpace”.
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Scott Kelly / NASA / Wikimedia

Source: NASA


Astronauts have conducted 223 spacewalks since the station opened.

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Backdropped by New Zealand and the Cook Strait in the Pacific Ocean, astronauts Robert L. Curbeam Jr. (left) and Christer Fuglesang (right) participate in an extravehicular activity (EVA), December 12, 2006.
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NASA

Source: NASA


Sometimes that’s when they get the best vistas.

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Astronaut Thomas Pesquet conducts a spacewalk 259 miles above Argentina on January 13, 2017.
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ESA/NASA

Behind them: the vacuum of space.

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Astronaut Luca Parmitano conducts a spacewalk on November 15, 2019.
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NASA

But even that void sometimes offers beautiful views.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this photo to Twitter on August 9, 2015 with the caption, “Day 135. #MilkyWay. You’re old, dusty, gassy and warped. But beautiful. Good night from @space_station! #YearInSpace”.
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NASA/Scott Kelly

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is,” Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, said in 1961. “Let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it.”

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The International Space Station was orbiting 257 miles above the North Pacific Ocean when a crewmember photographed these cloud patterns south of the Aleutian Islands, April 28, 2019.
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NASA

Source: UNESCO