PARIS — Suspended 250 miles above Earth on Tuesday evening, Thomas Pesquet looked down on Europe. Through a little window he saw a dark blue continent, sparkling with golden stars and the aurora borealis in the background. He could pick out most of the cities by their lights.
“In the front #Berlin & in the back Belgium clearly distinguishes itself as usual,” he posted on Twitter along with a photo, which was shot above northeast Poland and looking at Warsaw and beyond to Western Europe.
Alone among the sea of star-shaped cities, one country glowed as a whole: Belgium. Paris may be the City of Light, but France as a whole, compared to its northern neighbor, seems to have been cast into darkness.
Belgium has a dense road network with near-total streetlight coverage. In contrast to neighboring countries, it keeps most of its streetlights on at night, even those along small country roads. About 2.2 million bulbs illuminate Belgium’s roads, and with 186 bulbs per square mile, the country is the unrivaled leader in Western Europe.
Mr. Pesquet, a French astronaut with the European Space Agency, is on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. The low-orbit station can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth. Inside, he runs a weightless research laboratory and carries out scientific experiments for hundreds of researchers. Mr. Pesquet, 39, is accompanied by four other astronauts — two Americans and two Russians — and is set to return to Earth on June 2.
“He works 10 hours a day and then does sports exercises,” said Jean Coisne, a European Space Agency spokesman.
“But he has a lot of free time too,” Mr. Coisne added. “After work he doesn’t need to take the Métro, or cook food in the kitchen, so in his free time he enjoys the most spectacular show there is, and takes pictures of home — France and Europe — but also of the rest of the world, and the United States.”
“London, Paris and Brussels form a very European triangle #EuropeDay,” he tweeted with another photo showing northwestern Europe. The pictures were shot from inside the Cupola, an observatory module with seven windows, aboard the space station.
The pictures were posted on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, where people praised their beauty and symbolism, but some also raised questions about energy and the environment.
“I hope the Belgians will stop lightening up their roads in this way, if they don’t want the extraterrestrials to come and land there,” Caroline Guillot wrote on Mr. Pesquet’s public Facebook page. “But seriously these pictures are a denunciation of wastefulness.”
In recent years, some efforts to reduce streetlight use have been stopped because of public complaints, Belgian officials said.
Contacted by email and asked which was his favorite picture, Mr. Pesquet responded from space on Thursday: “The one with the aurora. Because auroras are one of the most beautiful things you can see in a lifetime. And also because Europe looks like a carpet of lights on this picture, which it also does in real life.”
By MILAN SCHREUER - nytimes.com