An astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) photographed this iconic landscape while orbiting over Australia’s aptly-named “red center.” Seen from ground level, this majestic sandstone rock formation stands 348 meters (1,120 feet) tall and is 3 kilometers (1.85 miles) long. Uluru is the ancient name used by Indigenous Australians; Ayers Rock is the name that was given to the landform by explorer William Christie Gosse in the 1800s.
Uluru is one of Australia’s major tourist attractions (more than 270,000 visitors in 2014), with operations run by people from the small town of Mutitjulu. A 16-kilometer (10-mile) road circles the rock, and a disused airstrip lies near the town. Darker greens indicate swaths of vegetation that thrive because of the many natural springs along the footslopes of the rock. Farther away, desert scrub vegetation on the drier soils of the linear sand dunes has browner tones.
Uluru and a similar striking landform known as Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, created as a UNESCO site in 1994 for cultural preservation and protection. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are remnants of sediments eroded from an ancient mountain range that existed about 550 million years ago. The sediments were subsequently buried and compressed to form harder rocks—called arkose and conglomerate by geologists. These rocks were later tilted from their original horizontal orientation by powerful tectonic forces. Views from above now clearly show the hundreds of originally flat-lying layers that make up Uluru. Softer and younger sedimentary rocks were then eroded away, leaving the more resistant rocks exposed to form the present-day landforms.
Uluru is thought by native peoples to have been created by ancestral beings during the Dreamtime, which has been described as the essence of aboriginal culture and spirituality. The rock is regarded as one of the ancestors’ most impressive pieces of work. Ancient paintings throughout its caves and fissures describe this relationship, keeping Dreamtime traditions alive. The proximity of the Mutitjulu settlement to the rock symbolizes the spiritual connection between the local people and Uluru.
Astronaut photograph ISS049-E-10638 was acquired on September 23, 2016, with a Nikon D4 digital camera using a 1600 millimeter lens, and 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 49 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 by Andi Hollier, Hx5 LLC, and M. Justin Wilkinson, Texas State University, Jacobs Contract at NASA-JSC.