This NASA Photo Isn’t Really Mars, It’s the Libyan Desert

February 5, 2021

The Libyan Desert is often cited as a Mars analogue.

The vast Libyan Desert stretches toward the Mediterranean Sea, which itself fades into the horizon of this photograph. This highly oblique view of Northern Africa was taken by an External High-Definition Camera (EHDC) on the International Space Station (ISS). The burnt reds and oranges of the desert and the dark-toned mountains and plateaus contrast sharply with the bright blues of the sea and horizon; all stand out against the deep black of space. From this vantage point, Earth looks otherworldly. Were it not for the distinctive blue of the Mediterranean in the distance, it could be mistaken for Mars or the myriad desert planets of science fiction.

The Libyan Desert, part of the larger Sahara Desert, is often cited as a Mars analogue—an area of Earth that has similar features to the Red Planet. It is the most arid part of the Sahara, and mostly uninhabited. The featured landscape is a mosaic of windswept dunes and darker sandstone plateaus making up the Fezzan region of Libya.

The EHDC is one of the ground-controlled cameras used to monitor mission status on the ISS. When the camera is Earth-facing, it joins the many Earth-observing sensors that are part of the ISS mission. These experiments take advantage of the unique orbital properties of the space station to gather data about our home planet. The position of EDHC on the orbiting lab allows for it to take wide-angle, highly oblique shots like this one—a type of view that is unusual for most remote sensing platforms but a favorite for astronaut photography.

ISS External High-Definition Camera (EHDC) photograph ISS064-E-29444 was acquired on February 5, 2021, with a D4 Electronic Still Camera using a focal length of 56 millimeters. It is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by an externally-mounted camera on the ISS during Expedition 64. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Alex Stoken, Jacobs, JETS Contract at NASA-JSC.