NASA sees breathtaking clouds on Earth and beyond

Earth clouds are made of water and ice, but those mundane ingredients come together into structures of great beauty in NASA's most stunning cloud pictures.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
1 of 22 NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Cloud vortices

Cloud formations have long stirred the human imagination, leading us to see fanciful figures of dragons and sheep. But some clouds, as seen by NASA satellites, astronauts and spacecraft, are just as wild as anything we could dream up. 

This might look like a closeup shot of a sheep, but it's actually a view of cloud vortices that formed off Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean in 2012. The image comes from NASA's Terra satellite, which is responsible for delivering quite a few stunning cloud photos. 

NASA describes how this unusual pattern comes from the wind striking the island's mountains: "As it blows around the island, the air spins on the leeward side, much like a flowing river forms eddies on the downriver side of a piling. The spinning wind forms intricate -- and mathematically predictable -- patterns."

2 of 22 NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response

Dust and a cyclone

Tropical cyclone Ockhi swirls in this image from NASA's Terra satellite taken in early December 2017. The view shows a northern part of the Indian Ocean. Streams of dust blown from the desert landscape extend over the Arabian Sea.

3 of 22 NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, using MODIS data from LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Hole-punch clouds

This might look like someone scraped their fingers over a patch of snow, but what we're seeing is an example of "hole-punch clouds" spotted by NASA's MODIS satellite in 2007. These clouds covered portions of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.  

"This strange phenomenon results from a combination of cold temperatures, air traffic, and perhaps atmospheric instability," says NASA.

4 of 22 NASA/Randy Bresnik

Lightning in the clouds

This view from the International Space Station shows an ominous-looking swathe of Earth covered in dappled clouds with lightning visible. NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik posted the dramatic photo in late 2017 with the message, "Lightning is always a treat from orbit, most of the time the flashes of light we see are larger than most cities."

5 of 22 NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Volcano with clouds

Shiveluch, a volcano in Russia, spit out ash and lava in mid-2017 and NASA's Terra satellite got a good view of the action. You can see the volcano's ash plume, but what elevates this image into the surreal is the bright swathe of clouds around it. 

6 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech

Clouds on Mars

This looks like it could be a barren Earth landscape, but it's actually from the Red Planet. NASA's Opportunity rover caught sight of early winter clouds on Mars back in 2004. "Similar in appearance to cirrus clouds on Earth, these clouds are believed to be composed of water-ice particles on the order of several micrometers (a few ten-thousandths of an inch) in length," says NASA.

7 of 22 James Haseltine/Oregon Air National Guard


This dramatic pyrocumulus cloud appeared over the Oregon Gulch fire in 2014. NASA highlighted the image as part of a discussion on the development of pyrocumulus clouds spurred by fires on the ground. Clouds like these can be massive, towering affairs. 

8 of 22 Randy Bresnik/NASA

Supermoon and clouds

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik shared his view of the Dec. 3, 2017 supermoon from the vantage point of the International Space Station. Mongolia hides beneath an ethereal cloud cover as the supermoon shows up starkly against the darkness of space.

9 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cloud shadows

Shadows extend from these clouds seen by NASA's Terra satellite over the Indian Ocean in 2007. The reddish hues lend a surreal look while the shadows make it look like the clouds are popping out of the screen.

10 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan's clouds

Earth isn't the only planet in the solar system with clouds. NASA shared this image from the Cassini spacecraft showing clouds on Saturn's large moon Titan. Cassini grabbed the view in late 2016. The thin methane clouds are very wispy and appear over the moon's hydrocarbon lakes in this image.

11 of 22 Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

Cloud streets

These distinctive bands of clouds appeared over the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia in late November 2017. NASA's Terra satellite captured the view, which shows a phenomenon called "cloud streets." 

NASA says cloud streets "form as cold, dry air from the land blows across relatively warmer, much moister ocean water and create cylinders of spinning air. Where the air is rising, small clouds form. Where the air is descending, the skies are clear."

12 of 22 Bob Cahalan/NASA GSFC

Vortices near Chile

This trippy swirling cloud pattern is called a "von Karman vortex street." NASA's Landsat 7 satellite captured this image in 1999 showing an area near the coast of Chile. NASA points out the fractal nature of the pattern, which is created in part by the presence of the Juan Fernandez Islands. 

13 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's clouds

It looks like someone swiped some watercolors across Saturn in this mid-2017 image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. NASA waxed poetic about this view: "Clouds on Saturn take on the appearance of strokes from a cosmic brush thanks to the wavy way that fluids interact in Saturn's atmosphere." 

14 of 22 Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Pacific islands under roll clouds

NASA's Terra satellite looked down at Earth on April 7, 2017 and caught this scenic view of "roll clouds" over an island chain in the Pacific Ocean. NASA says the parallel clouds likely formed from the influence of a tropical cyclone developing nearby at the time.

15 of 22 NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey

Inland clouds

This surreal image shows low-lying marine clouds following valleys inland from the coast of Peru in 2015.  "Because the marine clouds are low, they are easily blocked by coastal hills and mountains. But low valleys open to the ocean, such as the Yauca and Acarí river canyons, allow the clouds to easily move inland," says NASA.

16 of 22 NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

Ship-wave-shaped clouds

These cloud patterns seen over the Prince Edward Islands in the South Indian Ocean almost look like a moving optical illusion. NASA's Terra satellite caught this view in late 2015. 

NASA points out the "ship-wave-shaped clouds" coming off the edge of the islands. It gets its name from the resemblance to the wake coming off a boat. 

17 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran

Jupiter's swirling clouds

NASA's Juno spacecraft is currently studying the fascinating gas giant Jupiter and sending back some interesting images of the stormy planet. This particular view from mid-2017 was enhanced to highlight the swirling storm patterns and exotic cloud formations.

18 of 22 NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Ship tracks

These streaks might look like contrails from airplanes, but they're actually clouds created by ship fumes. These ship tracks are visible from space, as seen by NASA's MODIS satellite.

19 of 22 ESA/NASA

Rocky Mountain high

That distinctive break in Earth's cloud cover is due to the imposing presence of the Rocky Mountains in the US. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet snapped this photo from the International Space Station in mid-2017, writing, "the Rocky mountains are a step too high – even for the clouds to cross."

20 of 22 NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team


NASA captured this look at a rippling cloud pattern over the Indian Ocean in 2003. The space agency refers to this formation as "gravity waves" and says they are sometimes caused by a thunderstorm updraft.

21 of 22 NASA/Randy Bresnik

Clouds over China

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik snapped this ethereal view of clouds interwoven with mountains in China in late 2017. Astronauts on board the International Space Station are treated to scenic views of Earth's clouds from their vantage point in orbit.

22 of 22 NASA

Sunset clouds from the ISS

This composite image shows a sunset view from the International Space Station in April 2016. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams snapped the series of photos that went into making this look at the sun reflecting on the ocean with an accompaniment of clouds. 

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