[UPDATE (May 14 02:30 UTC): Welcome home to the three astronauts of Expedition 35, who safely touched down in Kazakhstan after an amazingly successful mission on board the ISS. My special thanks to Chris Hadfield, who has done more for space outreach and public excitement than most of us could accomplish in a lifetime.]
At 23:08 UTC tonight (7:08 p.m. EDT), a Soyuz TMA-07M capsule will undock from the International Space Station. On board will be three astronauts: Commander Chris Hadfield, and Flight Engineers Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn. This will mark the official end for Expedition 35 and the beginning of Expedition 36.
When they undock they will have logged 146 days on the station—five months—and in that time Hadfield has taken and tweeted hundreds of astonishing pictures of the Earth from space. His charm and clear passion for what he does have earned him a devoted following on Twitter, and I include myself among them.
As a tribute to this great man and the work he has done, here are a few of my favorite pictures he’s sent back to Earth from his perch 400 kilometers above its surface. (Note: My pal Joanne Manaster collected her favorite videos by Hadfield, too. All the photos below are by NASA; click them to embiggen.)
If you ever need a definition for the word “meander”, this river in Bolivia ought to take care of it. A commenter on Hadfield’s Facebook page was able to track it down. 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.
OK, so I’m slipping a video into this list of photos. But how could I leave this out? A couple of school kids asked Commander Hadfield what happens when you wring out a wet washcloth in space, so he demonstrated. The result? Pure awesome.
Also, did you see the video of him playing and singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity"? It's amazing.
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 gorgeous shot shows Canada’s mighty St. Lawrence river. But my astronomer’s eye immediately noticed the circular feature to the right: the huge 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. More than half a million people live in the “red zone” of the volcano’s blast region.
One of the best self-portraits of all time: Hadfield floats in the space station’s cupola, as the SpaceX Dragon capsule approaches.
In a similar vein, he also took a phenomenal picture of the Soyuz TMA-07M, the capsule he’ll be riding home, when it first approached the space station in December 2012.
The Richat Structure is a geologic dome in Mauritania. This is an uplifted and folded terrain (called an anticline), 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. In general, the oldest part is in the middle, and the features get younger as you move out across its 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius, like nested Russian Matroschka dolls.
Black Sea, Blue Microbes
When I saw this, I thought it was artificial, but in fact it’s Monte Argentario, a peninsula off the west 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
How You Dune?
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.
Bonus pic: Fixing a Leak
Just days before Hadfield was scheduled to return to Earth, one of the station’s cooling systems sprung a leak, with ammonia snowflakes blowing out into space. NASA scheduled a contingency spacewalk, and the problem was quickly fixed. Hadfield took this picture of his two crewmates—including Tom Marshburn, who is coming home with him—after they finished the repair.
Congratulations to Hadfield, Romanenko, and Marshburn for a successful mission. And I look forward to the new crew— Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and Luca Parmitano—when they arrive later in May. I hope they continue the grand tradition of Hadfield and those before him, and continue to send us such beautiful and moving photos of our Pale Blue Dot.
* Correction (May 13, 2013): I initially wrote that Monte Argentario was off the east coast of Italy, but it is on the west coast. Also, at the last minute I added in a picture, bringing the count up to 16, not 15! So let's call the last one a bonus to keep the Universe in balance.