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Astronauts Share Snapshots of Widely Varied Planet

October 28, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Like burning embers on a darkened sea, cities of middle America glow in the photo of an awakening nation, the horizon bright like a neon bulb suspended across the landscape.

That eerie view is one of hundreds of startling and stunning photos, the travel snaps of America’s astronauts compiled and published by National Geographic Society.

These are not the technical photos, official portraits of the planet included in National Aeronautics and Space Administration press releases. Rather, they are the work of men and women holding cameras in their hands, taking pictures of what interests them out the window.

Socrates once wrote that the world could be fully understood only by those who could rise above it. Now, in ``Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth,″ that has been done and the vision is here for all to share, collected by astronaut Jay Apt and scientists Mike Helfert and Justin Wilkinson.

Theirs is a vantage point available to few, stepping back hundreds of miles from the Earth and concentrating on grand vistas and unusual views, patterns and forms and sights seeable nowhere else.

Take, for example, that dawn picture made as Shuttle Columbia hurtled eastward at 300 miles per minute, heading into the dawn that glowed at planet’s edge.

Below, the land lies black in the night, sprinkled with blobs of light. Indianapolis anchors the photo at lower left, Louisville lower right. Columbus is in the center, Dayton and Cincinnati not far away. In the distance Cleveland and Pittsburgh glow and even Baltimore and Washington can be picked out.

The volume is divided into chapters by regions of the world and the photos provide views of nature at its most placid and violent as well as the works of the human population.

_ A photo shows the Rocky Mountains as a wrinkled gray landscape dusted with snow, Denver a dark smudge in the foreground.

_ The tidy farms of central New York grace a summer shot in which the Finger Lakes _ Seneca, Cayuga and Owasco _ stretch across another image.

_ The cover photo, also included inside, displays the massive swirl of a hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico, cottony cloud tops obscuring the power of the storm.

_ Islands off Mexico’s coast rise into the flowing winds, causing them to meander and twisting the clouds above into curious shapes.

_ Like pockmarks in a placid carpet of blue the volcanoes of the Galapagos Islands stand in stark reality.

_ Bright red and black swirls of the Macdonnell Ranges in Australia’s Northern Territory display the patterns of folding in the planet’s crust.

A highlight of the volume is travel into the spooky lights and patterns once glimpsed only from below, the glowing aurora.

``Enormous bright streamers coming down, all green, and dancing curtains and light shooting up like the jets from a gas burner on your stove,″ Apt wrote of a trip, floating ``just south of Australia, with the stars above us and the moonlit clouds below and the aurora all around us.″

The southern aurora australis, like the aurora borealis in the north, is caused by charged particles from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere near the poles where they produce the ghostly, shifting lights shown in the volume.

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