It’s easy to forget about the International Space Station. Quick: How long has it been flying? How many people are aboard right now? How big is it? If your answer to any of these questions is, “There’s an International Space Station?” you’re not alone.
But yes, there is. The first module was launched in 1998; there are currently six people aboard; and as for how big it is, try these metrics: it is well and truly as big as a football field, fitting those dimensions almost perfectly. It has the same habitable volume as a 747 – or a five-bedroom house, take your pick. It weighs 925,627 lb. (419,857 kg) or about the same as 320 automobiles. It takes 52 computers to keep the place running. Its electrical system is connected by eight miles (13 km) of wires, and you could cover the floor of the U.S. Senate three times over with its solar panels (and no, you wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that that would be a very good idea).
But never mind the numbers — and consider instead the gorgeousness. The station orbits at an altitude topping out at 255 miles (410 km) and completes one circuit of the earth every 90 minutes. On those trips, it sees a lot of nights and a lot of days, a lot of lightning and a lot of auroras, a lot of lands spangled by the midnight lights of great cities or sunk in the darkness of poverty or emptiness.
From August to October in 2011, astronauts aboard the station shot time-lapse footage of what they see — and now what the rest of us can see. It’s a moving portrait of a bizarre and colorful world, populated by countless life forms — and it’s exactly the kind of place we dream of when we go looking for exotic new planets. It’s also what we call home.