The Inquisitive Astronaut

Don Pettit turns his curiosity—and his camera—loose on board the International Space Station.

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Don Pettit inside the International Space Station's cupola, all set up for a photo session. NASA

When astronaut Don Pettit started blogging for us last December, just before launching to orbit for his second tour on the International Space Station, he included this bio note: “I am an engineer by schooling, a scientist by profession, and an explorer by heart. I train to fly in space, and on occasion, find myself in orbit.”

From somebody else, that might sound inflated. But not from Pettit. Whether in space or on Earth, he shows a restless curiosity and a need to see things from different perspectives. One day he’ll try out a new camera setting to capture dazzling views of auroras. The next day he’ll be playing around with droplets of water in zero-G. No wonder he’s so well suited to living on humanity’s farthest and strangest frontier.

See the gallery above for some of Pettit’s more inventive photos, and follow his adventures at his blog, “Letters to Earth.”

June 29 Update: Don and his crewmates André Kuipers and Oleg Kononenko are scheduled to undock their Soyuz spacecraft from the space station at 12:48 a.m. EDT Sunday, and land in Kazakhstan at 3:14 a.m.

Pictured above: Pettit in one of his favorite settings, the International Space Station's cupola. 

Reflection

Self-portrait, reflected in the visor of the Robonaut 2 humanoid robot on board the space station.

Star Trails

By combining a series of 30-second exposures, Pettit captures circular star trails centered on the station's axis of rotation, along with green airglow on the horizon, smeared-out city lights and lightning storms below.

Peanut Butter

A double-sided sandwich? “I do it this way because I am in space, and I can,” explains Pettit.

Orion

Space station thrusters firing, with the constellation Orion barely visible at right.

Infrared Vision

The delta of the river Ganges looks different viewed in infrared light.

Company in Space

Pettit was the first to capture on film the flashing thrusters of an approaching European ATV cargo vehicle last March. 

Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. “When seen from orbit, Issyk Kul appears to be a giant eye, looking at us looking down at it," writes the astronaut. "The snow-covered mountains become aged eyebrows. The lake itself, having a fairly high salt concentration, does not typically freeze over, thus reflecting wintertime light in such a way as to form a 'pupil' that seems to track us as we orbit overhead.”

Manicougan

Canada's giant Manicougan impact crater at center, the green glow of the aurora on the horizon.

Eclipse

The moving shadow of a solar eclipse, May 20, 2012. Pettit captured video, too.

Oil Platforms

Oil platforms off the coast of South America sparkle like jewels. “Collectively, they are one of the most brightly-lit areas I have seen anywhere on Earth,” Pettit wrote in his blog.

Poised and Ready

Pettit with his ever-ready camera, inside the Russian Zvezda Service Module.