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Astronauts Share Snapshots of Widely Varied Planet

October 29, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For the few lucky enough to see them, the spooky colors of the aurora shifting far overhead have fascinated humans for centuries. For astronaut Jay Apt, looking up wasn’t enough _ he twice flew through the polar lights and has the photos to prove it.

``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 one trip, floating ``just south of Australia, with the stars above us and the moonlit clouds below and the aurora all around us.″

That 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 lights.

Apt’s tour of these lights is illustrated in the new book, ``Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth,″ just published by the National Geographic Society.

Turning their cameras on the home planet from above, astronauts produced more than a hundred images included in the stunning volume from a vantage point available to few.

Socrates once wrote that the world could be fully understood only by those who could rise above it. Now that has been done and the vision is here for all to share, collected by astronaut Apt and scientists Mike Helfert and Justin Wilkinson.

Stepping back hundreds of miles from the Earth, the photos concentrate on grand vistas and unusual views, patterns and forms and sights seeable nowhere else.

Like burning embers on a darkened sea, cities of middle America glow in a photo of an awakening nation, the horizon bright like a neon bulb suspended across the landscape. Shuttle Columbia hurtles eastward at 300 miles per minute, heading into the dawn that glows 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.

Divided into chapters by regions of the world, 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.

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