The endless expanse that exists just outside our world has long been considered a place unlike any other. And through both real-life study and countless fictionalizations, the concept of space has grown to defy imagination. Yet even with our sights firmly set on this unexplored realm, we must make sure to never forget about the place we call home.

As mankind has become further absorbed in the mysteries of space, the Earth has begun to lose its luster, with humanity slowly growing bored after millennia of the same old thing. However, these recent photos from space highlight our planet in ways most have never seen, and there’s one image in particular that proves our home still has more surprises left than most think.

The stars and planets that fill our skies are the subject of constant study and admiration, and beyond the limitations of the naked eye, an unfathomable number of other curiosities remain adrift in the unending vacuum of space.

Yet while those extraterrestrial sights are no doubt mystifying, there’s one otherworldly body most of us take for granted: our own planet. Living on Earth has somewhat dulled our appreciation of its place in space, though perhaps a different perspective will change your mind…

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From their place aboard the International Space Station, astronauts regularly snap photos of the Earth using high-powered cameras mounted on the station itself. And over the years, these men and women have returned with some pretty incredible images.

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In this photo, the distant edge of the Milky Way galaxy serves as the backdrop to our humble home. Just below that, the Sahara Desert tints the Earth’s atmosphere a dusty orange as sunrays glint off millions of square miles of sand.

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As the ISS continues on its orbit around the planet, the Moon shows its familiar face. With the space station circling the Earth every 90 minutes, astronauts are greeted by the shimmering white body a total of 16 times a day.

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Toward the Earth’s northern and southern poles, the ISS gets a front row seat to one of the planet’s most breathtaking phenomenons: auroras. While viewing these lights from Earth is undoubtedly captivating, the sight of them from space is truly something to behold.

As we move a little closer to Earth, we begin to see how large of an impact we have on our planet. Even from space, our presence is visible in the billions of lights that shine throughout our homes and cities.

From space, we can also see the direct impact humans have on the environment. This massive man-made fish farm along the shore of northern China illustrates just one of the many ways we’ve worked to shape the natural world around us.

Zooming closer, it’s astounding to view some of the world’s most recognizable natural wonders from a different POV. The Himalayas may look like a collection of mountain peaks from the ground, but from above, the rivers and streams cutting through the snow make the range look like a complex series of tree roots.

Similarly, the vast deserts of Iran look more like a Van Gogh painting than a sun-soaked wasteland from up here. Without trees or soil to cover the ground, the multi-colored layers of stone are startlingly clear even from space.

Even the Great Barrier Reef – which is already an impressive sight – takes on an extraordinary new look when viewed from Earth’s orbit. While these images are undeniably beautiful, there have been others taken by the crew that are more unsettling…

From space, the scope of natural disasters becomes much more apparent, and the photos of these phenomena are striking. This image taken in 2003 shows Hurricane Isabel forming over the Atlantic before making its way to the East Coast of the United States.

Here, flooding from Thailand’s Mekong River caused by heavy monsoon rains is visible. Using these images, the ISS crew can assist in relief efforts by outlining the extent of the disaster for recovery agencies.

But in 2019, another natural disaster occurred that sent the space station crew scrambling for the cameras. Though this phenomenon was nothing new, the scene before them was one they simply couldn’t take their eyes off of.

At first, the crew could barely make out what they were seeing, as heavy cloud cover had obscured everything but a small plume of smoke drifting high into the atmosphere. They waited patiently for the station to continue along its orbit, and when the clouds finally cleared, they were amazed by what they saw.

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It was a volcano erupting! The spectacular explosion created an enormous cloud of fire and gas, scattering ash and debris thousands of miles in all directions. But what volcano was responsible for this incredible sight? And what’s more, were the surrounding inhabitants in danger?

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Fortunately, it was the Raikoke volcano, which is located in an uninhabited area of the Kuril Islands off the coast of Japan. Part of the notorious Ring of Fire, this volcano had erupted twice before: first in 1778 and then again in 1924.

The ISS crew was quick to send photos of the eruption back to Earth, where the stunning event was shared with space fans all over the world. In the future, they crew might be able to lend some these disaster images to one of NASA’s most top-secret projects.

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We know NASA best for launching astronauts and satellites into orbit, so would it surprise you to learn that a team of their scientists is studying models of a doomsday-devastated New York City? This is no side project, either; they’re deadly serious.

The man behind this peculiar mission is Lindley Johnson. A 23-year veteran of the Air Force, he joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.

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But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.

While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.

However, what if an asteroid — one multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.

That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.

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After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.

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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.

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For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.

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With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.

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NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.

The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.

With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.

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Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.

NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.

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The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.

NASA

Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.

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In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.

While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.

In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.

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Lindley likely couldn’t handle George Aldrich’s job. When George’s teacher told him to “shoot for the stars” as a child, he took that advice pretty literally. Fast forward several decades, and he’s caught way more than just a whiff of success at NASA.

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Growing up in New Mexico, George watched his dad fly up the Navy ranks and join the coveted Blue Angels. He always dreamed of reaching such soaring heights, and so he looked for a heroic job as soon as he finished high school.

George started a bit smaller. He volunteered for the local fire department, and his recent chemistry and mathematics experience piqued the interest of the chief. He signed up George for a special task on the force.

While he didn’t extinguish many infernos, George stood out on the department’s odor panel. By training his sense of smell, he could sense problems like gas leaks before they had a chance to ignite. Soon, George realized he was meant for bigger and better things.

In 1974, his chief recommended that George take his talents to the next level. NASA had a firm presence in the area, so perhaps, George figured, he could secure a position there. At the same time, not just anybody could waltz in and apply to be an astronaut.

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After the Apollo 1 disaster — in which a technical function aboard a shuttle killed all three crew members aboard — NASA was taking safety seriously. They needed staff who could prevent disasters most people would never see coming.

NASA

After sending in his application, George had to take a strenuous exam to see if he was made of the right stuff. Hours later, he set his pencil down and headed home, waiting for a phone call that would make or break his dreams.

Then the good news came in: NASA told George to report to the White Sands Test Facility immediately, where he would begin his new role as a Chemical Specialist. But what exactly did that mean?

Well, if you asked George about his job, he would describe himself as a “Nasalnaut” or the “Chief Sniffer.” That’s because his real responsibilities boil down to smelling anything that NASA sends into space.

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Odd as it sounds, George’s role makes sense. Astronauts go into space for long periods of time, stuck in close quarters, breathing in recirculated air. The last thing command wants is any harmful odors or substances traveling along with them, smelling up the shuttle.

NASA / Don Pettit

That’s precisely where George and his team come in. They personally inspect the smell of every piece of cargo and gear to make sure everything is ship-shape. Of course, nobody has been sniffing for longer than George.

He holds the NASA record for the most official sniffs, with his number approaching one thousand. Naturally, George’s system is more nuanced than just judging a scent as good or bad.

The odor panel blindly scrutinizes each object, so their everyday conceptions about the items won’t cloud their judgment. From there, the sniffers rank everything on a scale from 0-4. If something scores higher than 2.5, they suggest leaving it on Earth.

Between tests, George might cleanse his palate, so to speak, using a trick developed by perfumers. He simply resets his nostrils by smelling the back of his own hand, which is sometimes called “going home.” And his work has likely saved lives.

A manned space mission involves so many complex chemical reactions, that NASA cannot risk any toxic materials sneaking aboard. The astronauts themselves may not be able to detect it, so they require an expert nose to do it for them — and more.

Much of the time, the most problematic materials aren’t what you would expect. George has found that old-fashioned camera film, for example, can be surprisingly toxic. Meanwhile, other items can just get downright disgusting.

Something as basic as velcro can stink up an entire space shuttle. George once determined that while separate velcro straps have no real odor, together they can produce an unbearably pungent smell. But not every scent can be swept away.

George says that when it comes down to it, humans really stink, and there’s not much NASA can do about it. Because of basic functions like sweating and going to the bathroom, astronauts need to learn to live with a little odor.

After 44 years, George is still going strong. He estimates that he’s only ever missed two tests — due to sickness — over his entire career. You could say he wrote the book on odor testing, and he’s definitely smelled that book as well.

NASA