Perhaps the most famous part of the International Space Station (ISS) is the Cupola, a seven-window observatory module offering panoramic views of Earth and space.
Many ISS astronauts like to spend their free time there, gazing dreamily out of the windows while capturing photos showcasing the beauty of our planet.
But the Cupola is much more than just a place for astronauts to kick back and relax during their downtime. It’s also the perfect spot for Earth observation studies, and functions as a workstation for operating the facility’s robotic arm for spacewalks and spacecraft maneuvers.
The Cupola is 3 meters across and 1.5 meters high and weighs about 1.8 tons. It was built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and installed during a Space Shuttle Endeavour mission in 2010, a decade after the ISS went into operation.
This week current ISS inhabitant Matthias Maurer tweeted a shot from the Cupola that hints at the astonishing views that visitors to the space-based facility are able to enjoy.
There's always something to see from the Cupola 🔎🌍 An incredible view of the Earth, robotic activities of the @csa_asc #Canadarm2, arriving spacecraft & spacewalks. At the moment, you can also see part of the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft & #Prichal behind me 🛰️#CosmicKiss pic.twitter.com/RbydqGuEKO
— Matthias Maurer (@astro_matthias) December 15, 2021
Take note, though — the windows aren’t as large as the photo appears to suggest, with the camera’s wide-angle lens distorting the image somewhat. The video below offers a look inside the Cupola and gives a better idea of the true size of not only the windows, but of the module itself.
A little-known feature of the Cupola is its external shutter system that helps protect the windows from tiny meteoroids and orbital debris that could come its way. Closed when the module isn’t in use, the shutters also prevent solar radiation from heating up the Cupola and stop internal heat from escaping, according to ESA. You can see the shutters in action in the video below.
ESA says the Cupola provides a “shirtsleeve environment” for up to two astronauts working in the module. “Its internal layout is dominated by upper and lower handrails around the cabin, supporting most of the equipment, and by ‘close-out’ panels, which cover the harness and cooling water lines.”
To explore the Cupola for yourself, check out Google Earth’s wonderfully immersive feature that lets you view the module from every angle, and in great detail, too.
For more about day-to-day life on the International Space Station, take a look at these videos made by visiting astronauts over the years.
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