Claire de lune

Contributed by
Jun 1, 2010

I've been to France once, and only for a short time (basically, driving across the Large Hadron Collider site which straddles Switzerland and France, and only then to eat at a restaurant). I'd love to go and spend more time... especially when I see as lovely a view of L'hexagone as this one:

[Click to engrandenate.] C'est magnifique! C'est belle! It looks like a beach picture, the Moon shining down on the coastline, clouds gently wafting over the horizon...

Hey, wait a second. That isn't a picture taken from the beach! That's taken from space!

Oui. This shot, taken from the International Space Station, is looking southwest at France (and a little bit of Italy), but from several hundred kilometers above it. It was taken at nearly midnight on April 28. The view is not straight down, but at an angle; about 60° from straight down, or 30° down from horizontal (if I've done the math correctly; the law of cosines was a little tricky for this one, but I got the data from the NASA site). At the moment it was taken, the center of the picture was about 650 km (400 miles) away from the ISS.

I love this picture! What you think at first is the Moon is actually moonlight reflecting off the water of the Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean between France and Italy. Corsica can be seen to the upper left. Also visible are Marseille (to the right), Lyons (at the bottom) and Torino in Italy to the left (bonus astronomy goodness: a decade ago, Torino hosted a meeting for astronomers, who concocted the Torino Scale of how dangerous an Earth-buzzing asteroid is). Since it was midnight, the lights of the cities glow softly from this distance. You can also see the gentle blue reflected moonlight off snow-capped Alps in the center, interspersed with the light cloud cover.

There is a lot we can learn from observing our home planet from space, but perhaps the most important -- and the one with the most lasting impact -- is just how beautiful it is.

P.S. I was listening to Debussy's "Claire de Lune" as I wrote this, and when it ended, went right to "Prelude a L'Apres Midi d'un Faune". C'est vrai!

Crédit d'image: NASA

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