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Pictures from space

These amazing images – ranging from volcanic eruptions to city lights to coral atolls – are just some of the more 450,000 photographs taken by astronauts with hand-held cameras.

 / Updated 11 PHOTOS

Angling for a good shot

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have used hand-held cameras to take more than 450,000 photographs of Earth as seen from their orbiting outpost about 220 miles up in the skies since November 2000.

The flexibility to look off to the side, change lenses and choose interesting features to photograph are some of the advantages over stationary Earth-observing cameras on satellites, noted Cindy Evans at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where the database of images is maintained.

Here, astronaut Donald Pettit photographs the Earth from the Destiny Laboratory on the International Space Station.

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Playing in the sand

Among the best applications of ISS Earth Observation, according to Evans, is the perspective it offers on human development. For example, this Jan. 13, 2010, image of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates shows several of the city's features built with an aerial perspective in mind.

On the left is Palm Jumeira, a palm tree – shaped island made with more than 1.7 billion cubic feet of dredged sand. On the right are the World Islands, which were completed in 2008 with 11.3 billion cubic feet of sand. The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper at 2,217 feet that opened on Jan. 4, can be picked out in the lower right of the image.

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Volcanic eruption caught in the act

On June 12, 2009, the space station made a fortunate pass over Sarychev Volcano in the Kuril Islands northeast of Japan during the early stage of an eruption. How the clouds on top of and around the ash plume formed are a source of keen scientific interest, noted Evans. "It was one of a kind from the scientific value of understanding how an eruption starts," Evans said.

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Forest clearing in Bolivia

Astronauts have used hand-held cameras to photograph the Earth for more than 45 years, providing an archive to draw from to show land use changes through time, according to Evans. The images show progressive clearing of the tropical rainforest in eastern Bolivia to make room for agricultural fields.

The image on the left was taken from the space shuttle in November 1995. The image on the right is a slightly closer view of the same region made from the space station on November 2008.

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'Little jewels of the ocean'

As astronauts orbit over the western Pacific Ocean, they don't see land for long stretches of time. Then coral reefs and atolls appear and the astronauts tend to reach for the camera, noted Evans. "They see these little jewels in the ocean and they can capture them in great detail," she said.

Nukuoro Atoll in the Caroline Islands northeast of Papua New Guinea was photographed on May 31, 2006. The 42 patches of vegetation on the island face the dominant easterly winds. About 900 people live in the settlements on the inland side of the forest patches. Space station images of coral reefs, Evans noted, are used by conservationists to monitor the health of these habitats.

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A total solar eclipse from space

Solar eclipse enthusiasts will travel to the ends of the Earth to watch the moon momentarily blot the sun from the sky. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station caught this view of the moon's shadow sweeping across Turkey, northern Cyprus, and the Mediterranean Sea during the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006.

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Keeping an eye on their own

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station kept tabs on the space shuttle's return to flight following the 2003 loss of Columbia over Texas. This image was made on April 6, 2005, as the space station passed over Kennedy Space Center in Florida as shuttle Discovery was being rolled out to launch pad 39-B.

The shuttle mated with solid-fuel booster rockets and an orange external fuel tank is about halfway in to the 13-hour journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building, at the left of the image, and the launch pad at the top center. The shuttle successfully launched on July 26, 2005, and delivered supplies to the space station.

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London all lit up

Cities are among the most popular astronaut images downloaded from NASA, Evans said. "People are fascinated that not just a satellite looks down at them, but that people orbiting the Earth are looking down at these urban regions," she said.

This Feb. 4, 2003, photograph of London gives a clear view of the city's urban density. The downtown core is the brightest and the density steady drops off until it reaches an encircling roadway called the Orbital. The fuzzy patches are thought to be clouds or areas of fog.

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Going green

Some crew members, according to Evans, are fascinated by aurora – the nighttime lights in the skies that occur when oxygen and nitrogen atoms are bombarded by charged solar particles. They "and spend a good deal of time learning how to take photographs of the aurora that are meaningful." Expedition Six crew member Donald Petit took several pictures of aurora in January and February of 2003, including this one of a green aurora over the night side of Earth just after sunset.

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A fiery landscape

As fire licked across the Simpson Desert in Australia, it left behind tell-tale scars of its passing. The orange streaks in this Nov. 23, 2002, image, NASA explains, were created as fire burned the desert scrub, exposing the underlying dune sand.

The pattern suggests the fire moved into the view from the lower left and followed the rippled ribbon of the dunes in the direction of the prevailing winds. Then, the wind shifted direction about 90 degrees and blew the flames across the dunes in tendril-like streaks. As the vegetation grows back, the scars will disappear.

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A brewing storm

From the very beginning of astronaut photography aboard the International Space Station, brewing storms were a subject of interest. Shown here is the first image downlinked from the station – a mass of storm clouds building over the Earth. The image was made with an Electrical Still Camera. Today, the space station is equipped with high-end Nikon digital cameras.

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