“The earth is art, the photographer is only a witness.” So said Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the French photojournalist famed for his creative career looking down on creation. But to be a witness akin to the world-renowned aerial snapper, documenting the planet from above historically meant having to part of a highly exclusive club, a membership as rarefied as the altitudes one needed to attain perspective.

But no longer is the chance to turn landscapes into landscape art so limited; and no longer does it require commandeering a hot-air balloon, aeroplane or helicopter. Since 1996, a program sponsored by NASA has enabled school students around the world to remotely point and shoot a special camera on the International Space Station. The results are sometimes startlingly beautiful, less like Google Earth than a painter’s canvas. Here are a few of the best, selected by art director Robyn Adderly from hundreds of images taken on recent missions.

Pictured: Somalia, Africa 6.73° N, 47.30° E Credit: Sally Ride EarthKAM

Gallery 02.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Colour coding

While the purpose of the imaging program is educational, the hauntingly vivid images that sometimes emerge demonstrate that art, like innovation, can be a creature of circumstance. 

In the case of EarthKam, the accidental artistry is amplified by occasional colour rendering befitting a Fauvist dream. The blues and yellows of this image might suggest the drama and dynamism of coastline shoals, for example, but in fact it’s the middle of a dry desert. Here the earthy hues depict waves of wind-swept sand dunes, while the watery hues are also earth, an underlying tableau of clay and silt.

Pictured: Libya, Africa 27.60° N, 11.72° E Credit: Sally Ride EarthKAM

Gallery 03.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Student power

The Sally Ride EarthKAM program is unique in giving students direct control of an instrument on a working spacecraft. Four times each year the program provides a rare window of opportunity for students to request photographs of specific features or locations beneath the International Space Station’s orbit. 

After the requests are processed and accepted by NASA’s space centre in Houston, an onboard computer handles the picture-taking. Within hours of being taken, images are uploaded to the EarthKAM website and made publicly available. Now approaching 60 missions, the program has engaged more than 500,000 students from 78 countries.

Pictured: South Africa 28.25° S, 23.66° E Credit: Sally Ride EarthKAM

Gallery 04.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Sharing a Vision

The program (full name: the Sally Ride Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students program) is named after the first American woman in space. Sally Ride pioneered the educational inititiative (first called KidSat) in 1995 as a space shuttle astronaut. “She was amazed by the view of our beautiful blue planet wrapped in its thin blanket of air,” explained colleague Tam O’Shaughnessy.

“Sally wanted to share that view with young people all over the world.” The program, which was renamed EarthKam in 1998 and shifted to the ISS in 2001, was finally named in honour of Ride in 2013, following her death of pancreatic cancer.

Pictured: Sudan, Africa 12.79° N, 28.13° E Credit: Sally Ride EarthKAM

Gallery 05.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Battle lines 

While students learn about space flight, orbital paths, mapping and weather by participating in the EarthKAM program, perhaps it is these snapshots that teach the greatest lesson. From space, differences between nations and groups are rarely discernable. But other fractures are starkly drawn.

We see nature’s organic forms subjugated to the geometric lines of human industry. The conquest is a graphic reminder. “This planet is not terra firma,” as Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter once said. “It is a delicate flower and it must be cared for.“

Pictured: Australia 33.38° S, 138.90° E Credit: Sally Ride EarthKAM