Paint or plankton? NASA's Earth as Art images are pretty mindblowing

27 July 2012

These images, with their vibrant swirls, abstracted forms, and occasionally eye-popping bursts of colour, look like paintings. You can imagine them leaning against the wall of a messy studio, or framed and debated upon within a slick white gallery space. But in actual fact, they’re photographs of where we all live. It’s been 40 years since NASA launched its first Landsat satellite – sent way out there to monitor and document the changes taking place across the planet. To celebrate four decades of earth-gazing, NASA and the U.S. Geographical Society selected and digitally coloured 120 images taken from these satellites, and put them up for public vote in their Earth as Art contest.

The results are interesting, as they say as much about the beauty of our planet as they do about a human need to seek the familiar in what might otherwise come across – ironically – as rather otherworldly. Australia’s Lake Eyre resembles a skull, its contours are in fact the inundated parts of the enormous and often parched lake. The long streaks in the Algerian Abstract, image, meanwhile, could have been conjured up by an intense anguished Abstract Expressionist, but are in fact the ridges of Algerian sand-dunes, while those green ribbony swirls are the Mississippi River.

The tree-like Yukon Delta image resembles a capillary-filled anatomical diagram, but instead shows one of the largest river deltas in the world in south Alaska. The image that won first place in the contest has been dubbed “Van Gogh”, and the cloudy swirls of turquoise and blue are obviously very reminiscent of that artist’s Starry Night, but that’s not oil paint – it’s phytoplankton, and the image depicts population explosions of them occurring in the Baltic Sea. Minds, blown.


NASA: Lake Eyre, acquired by Landsat 5 on August 5 2006


NASA: Algerian Abstract, acquired by Landsat 5 on April 8, 1985


NASA: Meandering Mississippi, acquired by Landsat 7 on May 28 2003


NASA: Yukon Delta acquired by Landsat 7 on Sept 22, 2002


NASA: “Van Gogh” – Sweden’s Gotland Island, acquired by Landsat 7 on July 13, 2005

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Catherine Gaffney

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