Earth from Space: behind the scenes with Sent Into Space

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Last year, BBC One broadcast Earth from Space. Across four episodes, cameras in space told stories of life on our planet from a brand new perspective: cities sprawled while forests and glaciers shrunk. China turned yellow with rapeseed flowers while mysterious green lights appeared in the ocean. Elephants struggled through drought while strange ice rings endangered seals. From start to finish, Earth from Space revealed the sublime array of colours, textures and patterns visible from the stratosphere — and crucially, it showed us just how fast our planet is changing. 

British Journal of Photography went behind the scenes with Sent Into Space – the company responsible for capturing the striking spectacle of a solar eclipse for the BBC series – to learn about the process behind the footage. Sent Into Space are regarded as the ‘Near Space experts’; in the last decade, they’ve launched over 500 flights taking images of the Earth from the edge of space. Whatever the project, every shot is taken against the spectacular backdrop of the curving horizon of our planet, detailing the faint blue glow of our atmosphere and the black vacuum of space. 

Image courtesy of Sent into Space

Waking early in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on August 21 2017, the Sent Into Space team got to work preparing for the camera launch ahead of the BBC shoot. “With totality starting at 11:21am, timing was everything,” says the team. “We needed to be in the air at precisely the right minute to hit our target altitude at the moment of totality.” 

With wind gusting on the ground, the team took the shelter of a hangar to prepare their most sophisticated launch systems. Aiming to hit a higher altitude than ever before, they launched their technology upward with six cameras taking video footage from every angle. As the eclipse began to unfold on the ground, their flight began to capture its own images; within a matter of minutes, they were entirely engulfed in the shadow of the eclipse.

“Then as quickly as it began, the shadow moved away and totality had ended,” says the team. “But our flight wasn’t over. It continued onwards and upwards surpassing an altitude of 50km (165,000ft) before finally descending back to earth to be recovered.” That night they camped out under the night stars, treated to a breathtaking view of the Milky Way galaxy, without a streetlight for miles around.

Image courtesy of Sent into Space

Sent Into Space’s work spans a number of industries, conducting award-winning viral marketing stunts, advancing scientific understanding of our planet, testing cutting-edge satellite and avionics equipment, inspiring future generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts or scattering ashes on a breathtaking final journey. With a unique mix of engineering, creative and marketing skills and a client list including some of the world’s biggest companies, their growing team is pushing the boundaries of photography at the edge of space.

This year, we’re partnering with Sent Into Space to turn Portrait of Humanity 2020 into the first major space exhibition. 

Check out their full footage for the BBC below:

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.