Gorgeous Video Explains What Astronauts See at Night

How many of the world’s 193 countries (give or take) can you label on a map?

What if you were looking at them from space? That’s where it gets confusing.

That’s where this gorgeous new video comes in. As you fly over the planet—via stitched-together time-lapse images taken from the window of the International Space Station within the last year—NASA chief geoscientist Justin Wilkinson explains what you’re seeing (Texas, say). Watch:

When astronauts first go into space, Wilkinson says, they are often disoriented by the way the actual planet appears. “It looks so different from a map. You have no idea where you are. You have to slowly learn that,” he told me. “You start to learn your geography by how you rotate around the planet.”

As principal geoscientist, Wilkinson often sends messages to the astronauts, asking them to take pictures of this or that part of the planet. Though it may seem like we’ve explored Earth’s every nook and cranny, he says, they are actually learning new things constantly. For instance: There are a lot more examples of a geographical phenomenon called an inland delta or megafan—that is, deltas formed far from coastlines—than was once thought.

Wilkinson hopes to someday take these techniques to Mars. But for now, he hopes that videos like this one will help those of us who are grounded on Earth will “start to see the planet for the little alive ball it is, floating in space a long way from another planet. We may get to respect it a little more and be more careful with it.”

Which presidential candidate has the best space-exploration policy—Obama or Romney? Physicist Lawrence Krauss looks at their platforms.