10 Things Massive Enough to Be Seen From Space

A far, far away view


You might have heard the oft-repeated trivia nugget that the Great Wall of China is the only manmade object visible from space. Turns out that isn't exactly true: NASA says the wall generally isn't visible, "at least to the unaided eye in low Earth orbit." Luckily, satellites (and astronauts) are prolific photographers, adding the view from Earth's orbit into the mix. We've gathered a few photos of notable geographic features, phenomena and other things big enough to be visible from space for your earthbound viewing pleasure. (Text: Josh Lew)

The Himalayas


With 14 peaks that are over 26,000 feet tall and over 100 that exceed 20,000 feet, the mountains of the Himalaya Range are undeniably impressive. If you have the strength and endurance to climb one of them, you will undoubtedly witness some amazing views. But it is even more impressive to see these snow-capped giants from space.

In fact, it is their white summits that make these mountains stand out in pictures from space. It's easy to pick out the Himalayas sandwiched between the Tibetan Plateau and the plains of the Indian Subcontinent. According to NASA, this photo was made with a handheld large-format camera from a space shuttle Challenger mission, and provides a southwestern view of the Greater Himalayas. India is in the upper left; Pakistan, at lower right; and China is in the lower left foreground.

Great Barrier Reef


Known as the largest living structure on Earth (it is made entirely of coral), the Great Barrier Reef sits in shallow water off the coast of Eastern Australia. At over 1,600 miles long and with a total area of around 130,000 square miles, it is easy to see why this unique geographical feature is a favorite photo-op for satellites. While its endless coral formations and over 1,500 species of fish make it worth an up-close look, to appreciate the full scope of this aquatic landscape, you have to look at satellite images, which show it stretched parallel to the entire coast of northeastern Australia.

Dubai's artificial islands


Consisting of sandy human-made islands two miles off the mainland of the Arabian emirate of Dubai, the World development (at right) and the Palm Islands were built to resemble, you guessed it, a world map and a palm tree. Visible from space, these landforms were made using sand dredged from the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. There is even a plan to add a replica of the solar system with the sun, stars and planets called the “Universe” to the human-made geography of Dubai.

Cities at night


Aside from the shapes of the continents, the most easy-to-identify geographic features seen from space are cities lit up at night. Only major cities have enough combined wattage to be seen from orbit, with a few even visible with the naked eye. In cases like the eastern half of the U.S., Western Europe and India, countless numbers of lights, bright and dim, combine to create one large illuminated area.

Pyramids at Giza


Though they cannot be seen distinctly from space with the naked eye, the pyramids of Egypt are a popular subject for satellites and space station astronauts. The pyramid shape is clearly visible from above with a zoom lens or a high-resolution camera. While the desert landscapes are also evident, satellite images show that the pyramids are now partially surrounded by the modern city of Cairo (and abutted by a large golf course).

Greenhouses of Almeria, Spain


Ever wonder what 64,000 acres of plastic greenhouse-like structures would look like from space? Almeria, Spain, has it covered. This historic city in Andalusia Province, in the southeasternmost part of Spain, is at the heart of the country's agriculture industry and exports almost three-quarters of its crops to other parts of Europe. The reflection from all these greenhouses sitting shoulder-to-shoulder means that the whole area is easily visible from space during the daytime.

Grand Canyon

Karen L. Nyberg/Twitter.

The Grand Canyon is breathtaking in person, no question. But seeing it all at once requires a trip into Earth's orbit. Satellite images of the Grand Canyon and pictures taken by astronauts on the International Space Station not only show its distinct shape but also other natural and manmade features in the area including Lake Meade, the Colorado Plateau and even the city of Las Vegas. (Astronaut Karen L. Nyberg tweeted this image from the ISS on Oct. 9.)

Ganges River Delta


The 220-mile-wide Ganges River Delta, which covers southern Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal in India, is one of the most distinctive geographic features on Earth. It is rich with wildlife and prone to disastrous flooding on an almost yearly basis. The interesting geographic features of the Delta are best appreciated from orbit. The river deposits large amounts of sediment in the Bay of Bengal and appears to have a light, almost milky color. In this true-color Terra MODIS image from NASA, the Ganges River flows southeast across the image and empties into the bay.

Amazon River and tributaries


The Amazon River has made its way onto our list thanks to its length and the way it stands out next to the dense forests that surround it. When the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes, both major tributaries of the Amazon, flow into the mighty river near the jungle city of Manaus, they create a web of waterways that can be seen by satellites. This phenomenon is especially evident during floods. The Amazon Rainforest also appears on satellite images as a large dark area in the middle of South America, but the rivers that flow through the forest are more distinctive visually.

Phytoplankton blooms


One of the most stunning and unusual earthbound features seen from space is not found in one stationary location. Large phytoplankton blooms, made up of an uncountable number of microscopic (single cell) organisms, can be seen by satellites orbiting the Earth. The plume-like swirls cover large swathes of the ocean, usually near the coastline. Phytoplankton thrive in warm temperatures, and the swirls often grow larger when they come in contact with nutrient-rich water from river deltas. Some calcium-rich phytoplankton swirls appear a milky white while others take on a red hue. They are an important source of nutrients for marine animals, including whales, but certain types (the so-called red tides) are toxic and can cause problems for animals and humans.