A View From Space: White Sands National Park, New Mexico
An astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured the image below of the White Sands National Park in south-central New Mexico. A patch of bright white in the otherwise reddish-brown landscape when viewed from above, the dunes are composed of gypsum deposited in ancient Lake Otero. This water body existed when the climate was cooler and wetter.
The site is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The gypsum originated from the nearby San Andres Mountains and began washing into the basin close to the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000 years ago.
New gypsum deposits are added to the 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 approximately 60 ft (18 m) tall.
The White Sands region has a rich history in the aerospace industry. NASA utilized three runways built into the northern part of the lakebed for rocket testing and shuttle pilot training. The White Sands Space Harbor was used for one shuttle landing when STS-3 returned from its eight-day mission to space. NASA continues to operate its White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
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 this year.
In addition to NASA operations, the United States Department of Defense operates nearby sites, including the Holloman Air Force Base located at image right.
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 NASA's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.