10 Things Massive Enough to Be Seen From Space

Satellite image of Dubai's Palm Islands
Dubai's massive artificial Palm Islands can be seen from space.

Vonkara1 / Getty Images

You might have heard the oft-repeated trivia nugget that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from space. Turns out it isn't 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. From the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef to the artificial Palm Islands of Dubai, they've captured countless scenes of the world's biggest things.

For your earthbound viewing pleasure, here are 10 things massive enough to be seen from space.

of 10

The Himalayas

View of the Himalayas from the NASA ISS Expedition 53

Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

With 14 peaks over 26,000 feet tall and more than 100 exceeding 20,000 feet, the mountains of the Himalaya range are the biggest on Earth. Views from the top—seen only by the few who have the strength and endurance to climb them—can only be topped by the views from space.

It's their snow-capped summits that make these geographical anomalies stand out in satellite pictures. It's easy to pick them out due to their prominence against the Tibetan Plateau and the plains that flank them. The mountains occupy a large swath (1,550 miles) of South and East Asia, spanning five countries: India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Pakistan.

of 10

Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef from 2017

European Space Agency / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Known as the largest living structure on Earth (made entirely of coral), the Great Barrier Reef sits in shallow water off the coast of Eastern Australia. At more than 1,600 miles long and with a total area of around 130,000 square miles, it's no surprise this unique geographical feature is a favorite photo op for satellites. While its endless coral formations and 1,500-plus species of fish make it worth an up-close look, to appreciate the full scope of the aquatic landscape, you have to look at satellite images, which show it stretched parallel to the entire coast of northeastern Australia.

of 10

Dubai's Palm Islands

View of Palm Islands from 255 miles above Saudi Arabia

NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Consisting of sandy human-made islands two miles off the mainland of the Arabian Emirate of Dubai, the World archipelago and Palm Islands were built to resemble, as their names suggest, a world map and palm trees. Visible from space, these landforms were made using sand dredged from the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. There is even a plan (that has been on hold indefinitely since 2009) to add a replica of the solar system with the sun, stars, and planets. If ever made, it will naturally be called the Universe.

of 10

Major Cities at Night

Satellite view of Houston, Texas, lit up at night

NASA - Astronaut photograph ISS022-E-78463 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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—such as New York City, London, Buenos Aires, and Seoul—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.

of 10

Pyramids at Giza

View from space of the Pyramids at Giza

Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Though they can't be seen with the naked eye from space, the pyramids of Egypt are a popular photography subject for satellites and space station astronauts. The three pyramid shapes are clearly visible with a zoom lens or a high-resolution camera pointed at the Giza Plateau. 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).

of 10

Greenhouses of Almeria

View of Almería Greenhouses from Landsat 8 satellite

O.V.E.R.V.I.E.W. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

If you've ever wondered what 64,000 acres of plastic greenhouselike structures would look like from space, see satellite footage of Almeria, Spain, which has thousands of plant nurseries built back-to-back. The 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 so close together means that the whole area is easily visible from space during the daytime.

of 10

Grand Canyon

Satellite view of Grand Canyon under snow

NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Spanning nearly 2,000 square miles in Arizona, the full Grand Canyon is visible only from space. Satellite images and pictures taken by astronauts on the International Space Station show not only the distinctly curvy shape of the canyon itself but also other features—both natural and artificial—in the area, such as Lake Meade, the Colorado Plateau, and even Las Vegas. In some of the satellite images, you can even make out the tourist facilities perched at the edge of the canyon.

of 10

Ganges River Delta

Satellite view of the Ganges River Delta in India

NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The 220-mile-wide Ganges River Delta, which covers southern Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal in India, is one of the most prominent geographic features on Earth, and its unmistakable arced shape with ribbony waterways is best appreciated from space.

The river is rich with wildlife and prone to disastrous flooding on an almost yearly basis. It deposits large amounts of sediment in the Bay of Bengal and appears to have a light, almost milky color, which makes it even more distinguishable from orbit.

of 10

Amazon River and Tributaries

Satellite view of Amazon River

Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Amazon River is easy to spot against 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's been captured 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 visually distinctive.

of 10

Phytoplankton Blooms

Phytoplankton blooms seen from space

Jeff Schmaltz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

One of the most stunning and unusual Earth features seen from space is not found in one stationary location. Large phytoplankton blooms, made up of countless microscopic (single-cell) organisms, are often captured by satellites. The plume-like swirls cover large swaths 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 (including red tides) are toxic and can cause problems for animals and humans.

Why Space Matters to Treehugger

Space is our planet’s home and its wonders help us get outside and foster an appreciation of nature. Exploring space and the cosmos can also help us learn about what’s happening on Earth. Space-based technologies have helped us better understand climate change, water cycles, and even air quality.