“Valentine’s Day has struck again,” tweeted ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet when he posted this image of a heart-shaped lake in Mongolia. Thomas took this image from the International Space Station during his Proxima mission in 2017.
Two years on, it is that time of year again, the day that brings some joy and others anxiety. But if thoughts of ordering flowers and making dinner reservations are stressing you out, spare a thought for our stressed-out Earth.
The fact that Earth is rich in flora and fauna is without question, but our planet is changing fast – particularly because human activity is placing pressure on natural resources.
Increasing industrial production and a continued reliance on fossil fuels is causing global temperatures to rise. With a change in climate comes huge environmental challenges that humans will not be able to keep up with.
We need to check the status of our relationship with Earth before we wreck it. How?
The first step to fixing a problem is to understand the causes and full extent of it. The vantage point of space provides a window on the world like no other, through which to understand and monitor our changing planet.
And Earth-observing satellites are not the only tools to do this. Astronauts are also viewing Earth from space and taking pictures. Their photography is not just a perk of being an astronaut; they are often used to supplement satellite imagery and provide a different perspective.
Take the case of ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen. He was tasked with capturing a phenomenon notoriously difficult to photograph from Earth: elusive electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere that sport names such as red sprites, blue jets, pixies and elves. Reported by pilots, they are difficult to study as they occur above thunderstorms. (A dedicated instrument called ASIM has since been launched to the Space Station to monitor this phenomenon).
Besides their value to science, astronaut photographs from space are a great tool for science communication. From the very first images of Earth taken by NASA astronauts in the 1960s that showed the world how fragile Earth is, to the ones like this taken by astronauts and posted to social media, they all drive home an important message:
Love our planet, because it is the only home we have.