New Mexico’s White Sands

New Mexico’s White Sands

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this photograph of White Sands National Park in south-central New Mexico. The park is situated in the Tularosa Basin and spans roughly the southern half of a 275-square-mile (712-square-kilometer) dune field.

The dunes appear bright white in the otherwise reddish-brown landscape. The light color is due to gypsum that was deposited in ancient Lake Otero, a water body that existed in the area when the climate was cooler and wetter. The gypsum originated from the nearby San Andres Mountains and first began washing into the basin close to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. Today, the site is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

New deposits of gypsum are added to the sand dunes when mineral-rich waters from the surrounding mountains drain into the southwest margin of White Sands and subsequently evaporate to form gypsum crystals. Over the years, wind processes have eroded and shaped the dunes to reach about 60 feet (18 meters) tall.

The White Sands region has a rich history in the aerospace industry. NASA utilized three runways built on the northern part of the lakebed for rocket testing and shuttle pilot training. The White Sands Space Harbor was used for one space shuttle landing when STS-3 returned from its eight-day mission to space. NASA continues to operate its White Sands Test Facility located just outside the bottom left of the photo.

More recently, White Sands served a critical role in the commercial space industry as the landing location for Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Orbit Flight Test-1 in December 2019 and Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Orbit Flight Test-2 in May 2022. The space harbor is also designated as the landing location for Boeing’s first crewed mission (Boeing Starliner-1) scheduled to fly to the space station later in 2023.

In addition to NASA operations, the U.S. Department of Defense operates nearby sites including the Holloman Air Force Base.

Astronaut photograph ISS068-E-33229 was acquired on December 26, 2022, with a Nikon D5 digital camera using a focal length of 210 millimeters. It is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 68 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Cadan Cummings, Jacobs, JETS Contract at NASA-JSC.