Zip Around the Globe Twice in 15 Minutes in the Longest Space Time Lapse 

Could you take photos for three hours straight?

There’s no more epic way to celebrate the International Space Station’s golden birthday than with a cinematic time lapse.

Brought to Earth by European Space Agency astronaut turned time lapse expert Alexander Gerst, the ESA released its longest continuous time lapse filmed from the ISS yet, in honor of the weightless laboratory’s 20th anniversary on November 20. In just under 15 minutes, Gerst takes viewers on an awe-inspiring tour of our blue dot from 400 kilometers — about 249 miles — above.

Sped up 12.5 times, a reel of roughly 21,375 images taken over the course of three hours makes up the video. Gerst captured the stunning view from the European-built Cupola observatory on October 6, 2018. Viewers begin over Tunisia, passing by Crimea before capturing the urban glow of Beijing. From the ISS, Gerst even recorded lightning from storms, which appear as bright pops of light against complete darkness as half the globe sleeps.

cupola dragon photo
Gerst has also captured a timelapse of the launch of a SpaceX Dragon capsule, observed from the Cupola.

Taking Photos 400 Kilometers Above the Earth

There’s only so much a steady hand can do to grab clear footage while the ISS races in orbit at 28,800 kilometers per hour (17,895 miles per hour). It takes the station a mere 90 minutes to complete a circuit around Earth, but nighttime shots present a particularly difficult challenge, since cameras require adequate light to take a clear photo. Back on the surface of our globe, photographers simply leave the shutter open to accumulate more light. But with the ISS zipping around the globe, a slower shutter speed would produce a bright, but disappointing set of blurry images.

Cue the Nightpod. Located in the Cupola, the device accounts for the movement of the ISS by allowing astronauts to focus on a specific point on Earth, letting them capture images of light back on Earth from city light pollution to vegetation fires. Since its installation in 2012, the camera has illuminated the human experience around the globe, from Washington D.C.’s acorn lighting to the clear boundary in gas versus sodium lamps between West and East Berlin. Lucky for us, it also captures the beautiful transition from day to night and back again, letting viewers see a blinding sunrise from space.

berlin west east light
Photo taken by CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield on Expedition 34.

On the left side of the frame of the video at the top of this article, viewers can see the solar arrays of the ISS, rotating every so often to an optimal angle to absorb sunlight. On the right lies Japan’s HTV-7, a cargo spacecraft docked at the ISS until November 7, 2018. If you need to brush up a bit on your geography and lose track of where the ISS is located, a map in the upper righthand corner tracks the station’s path.

The release of the video celebrates the launch of the first element of the ISS (the control module Zarya), which marked the station’s birthday as November 20, 1998. It may not be an 8K video, but for the orbital outpost’s grand day, it’s absolute gold.