The World Through a Looking Glass

The World Through a Looking Glass
Jan 27, 2012 03:48:40 PM

The International Space Station above the night side of Earth. Credit: NASA

Looking through the cupola windows on Space Station, it’s only natural to reflect upon who we are and where we fit into the world below. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland, this orbital looking glass can be both a window through which to observe the jeweled sphere of Earth and a mirror that (sometimes, depending on your viewing angle) shows you a translucent reflection of yourself superimposed on the planet.

From orbit, the more you know about our planet, the more you can see. You see all the geological features described in textbooks. You see fault zones, moraines, basins, ranges, impact craters, dikes, sills, braided channels, the strike and dip of layered rocks, folding, meanders, oxbow lakes, slumps, slides, mud flows, deltas, alluvial fans, glaciers, karst topography, cirques, tectonic plates, rifts zones, cinder cones, crater lakes, fossil sea shores, lava flows, volcanic plumes, fissures, eruptions, dry lakes, inverted topography, latteric soils, and many more.

You see clouds of every description and combination: nimbus, cumulus, stratus, nimbo-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, cirrus, thunderheads, and typhoons, sometimes with clockwise rotation, sometimes with counter-clockwise. You notice patterns: clouds over cold oceans look different than clouds over warm oceans. Sometimes the continents are all cloud-covered, so you have no recognizable landmass to help you gauge where you are. If you see a crisscross of jet contrails glistening in the sun above the clouds, you know you are over the United States.

Lightning storms flash like gigantic fireflies looking for mates half a continent away. You see patterns on the ocean surface, swirls and vortices on large scales, wave diffraction patterns around capes, solitary waves forming long lines out in the middle of nowhere, and rivers that look like they are spilling milk chocolate into turquoise oceans.

You see light-scattering phenomena of all kinds—at sunrise, at sunset, across the terminator, 16 times a day. You see crepuscular rays, forward reddened lobes, off-axis blue lobes, and corona halos. With binoculars you can count six distinct layers in the atmosphere, with the outer one seemingly fading into fuzzy blackness.

European astronaut André Kuipers takes in a view of the Earth below. Credit: NASA / Don Pettit

The aurora is nothing short of occipital ecstasy. It is always moving, always changing, and like snowflakes, no two displays are the same. The glowing red and green forms meander like celestial amoebas crawling across some great petri dish. One time our orbit took us through the center of an auroral display. It was as if we were in a glowing fog of red and green. Had we been shrunk down and inserted into the tube of a neon sign? It looked like it was just on the other side of the windowpane. I wanted to reach out and touch, but of course I couldn’t. Afterwards, I had to clean nose prints off of the window.

You catch an occasional meteor while looking down at Earth. You see stars and planets in oblique views, next to Earth’s limb. And they do not twinkle. Perchance you might spot a ragged shadow from a total solar eclipse projected onto Earth. Amazing, it looks just like it does in the textbooks! You have a godlike view of the finer details of shadowy projections onto spherical bodies. You see space junk orbiting nearby. Sometimes it flickers due to an irregularity, catching light as it rotates. An overboard water dump produces a virtual blizzard in the surrounding vacuum. Like strangers passing in the night, you see other satellites flash brilliantly for a few seconds, then fade into oblivion.

Jungles are the darkest land features you can observe in full sunlight. They are so dark that you need to open your camera lens to obtain a proper exposure. If there are clouds partly shrouding your view, you can be fooled into thinking you are over the ocean. Only when you notice rivers with braided channels and meandering loops of chocolate brown do you realize that it is jungle and not water. Farmland, rich with vibrant crops, is different. Farmland is bright, much brighter than the jungles. Here nature is giving us a clue as to the efficiency of light capture by plants.

The impact of humanity on Earth is humbling from orbit. Our greatest cities appear to the bare eye as minor gray smudges on the edges of continents—they could be the fingerprints of Atlas, from the last time he handled the globe. They are hardly distinguishable from volcanic ash flow or other geologic features. If you didn’t know it was a city, it would be difficult to conclude it was the result of human design. Under the scrutiny of the telephoto lens, things appear different. Like ants moving crumbs of dirt, we are slowly changing our world. You realize that Earth will do just fine, with or without us. We are wedded to this planet, for better or for worse, until mass extinction do us part.

Cities at night are different from their drab daytime counterparts. They present a most spectacular display that rivals a Broadway marquee. And cities around the world are different. Some show blue-green, while others show yellow-orange. Some have rectangular grids, while others look like a fractal-snapshot from Mandelbrot space.

Patterns in the countryside are different in Europe, North America, and South America. In space, you can see political boundaries that show up only at night. As if a beacon for humanity, Las Vegas is truly the brightest spot on Earth. Cities at night may very well be the most beautiful unintentional consequence of human activity.

This looking glass incites your mind to ponder the abstract. Through the window, you explore the world. In the mirror, you reflect upon your place within it and the reasons we explore. Is it fundamentally about finding new places to live and new resources to use? Or is it about expanding our knowledge of the universe? Either way, exploration seems fundamental to our survival as a species. After all, if the dinosaurs had explored space and colonized other planets, they would still be alive today.

A Lab for Science, and for Thinking
Feb 02, 2012 11:12:11 AM

Getting ready to insert biological samples in the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI-1) in the Kibo lab. Credit: NASA / Don Pettit

The International Space Station was conceived and constructed through the cooperation of fifteen nations. Now, with it’s construction complete, we can focus on how best to use it.

We have built a laboratory located on the premier frontier of our era. Our Earth-honed intuition no longer applies in this orbital environment. On frontiers, things do not behave the way we think they should, and our preconceived notions are altered by observations. That makes it rich in potential for discovery. The answers are not in the back of the book, and sometimes even the questions themselves may not be known.

On the Station we can use reduced gravity as an experimental variable for long periods of time. We have access to high vacuum, at enormous pumping rates. (The rate at which space can suck away gas, hence its ability to provide a region devoid of molecules, far outpaces anything we can do on Earth.) We are beyond the majority of our atmosphere, which lets us touch the near-space environment where solar wind, cosmic rays, and atomic oxygen abound. Such cosmic detritus, unavailable for study within our atmosphere, holds some answers to the construction of our universe and how our small planet fits into the picture.

The Station as a laboratory offers most of the features that Earth-borne laboratories have, including a good selection of experimental equipment, supplies, and a well-characterized environment (temperature, pressure, humidity, gas composition, etc.). There is generous electric power, high data-rate communications, significant crew work hours (the fraction of hours spent on science per crew day on Space Station is commensurate with the fraction for other science frontiers such as Antarctica and the deep ocean), and extended observational periods ranging from weeks to years. All this is conducted with a healthy blend of robots and humans, working together hand-in-end-effector, each contributing what each does best. Only on Earth is there a perceived friction between robots and humans.

In this orbital laboratory, we can iterate experimental procedures. We can try something, fail, go back to our chalk board, think, (we now have the time for this luxury) and try it all over again. We can iterate on the iteration. We now have continuous human presence, and time to see the unexpected and act upon it in unplanned ways. Sometimes these odd observations become the basis for studies totally different from those originally planned; sometimes those studies prove to be more valuable. And on this frontier the questions and answers mold each other in Yin-Yang fashion until reaching a natural endpoint or the funding runs out, whichever comes first. This is science at its best, and now, for the first time, we have a laboratory in space that allows us to do research in a way comparable to how we do it on Earth.

So what questions are ripe for study on the Station? What possible areas of research might bear fruit? We have a few ideas.

One area is the study of life on Earth. Life has survived for billions of years, during which temperatures, pressures, chemical potentials, radiation, and other factors have varied widely. Life always adapts and (mostly) survives. Yet there is one parameter that has remained constant for billions of years, as if our planet was the most tender of incubators. Now for the first time in the evolution of life, we humans can systematically tweak the gravity knob and probe its effect on living creatures. And we can change the magnitude of gravity by a factor of one million. Try changing other life-giving parameters, perhaps temperature, by a factor of one million and see how long it takes a hapless life form to shrivel up and die! The fact that gravity can be changed by many orders of magnitude and life can continue is, in itself, an amazing discovery. So now we have a laboratory to probe in-depth the effects of microgravity on living organisms.

The International Space Station above the atmosphere of Earth. Credit: NASA

The discovery of fire (or rather its harnessing) was a significant advance that allowed humans to transcend what we were to become what we are now. Well before Galileo and Newton dissected the basic formulations of gravity, humans intuitively understood that heat rises. We empirically learned how to fan the flames. But fire as we know it on Earth requires gravity. Without gravity-driven convection, it will consume its local supply of oxygen and snuff itself out as effectively as if smothered by a fire extinguisher. Questions about fire (up here we prefer the term “combustion”) are ripe for a place where we can tinker with the gravity knob.

Another invention, the wheel, literally carried us into the Industrial Age. Ironically, that particular tool is rendered obsolete on a frontier where one can move the heaviest of burdens with a small push of the fingertips. In space the problem is not how to move an object, but how to make it stay put. Perhaps the invention of the bungee cord and Velcro will be the space-equivalent to the development of the wheel on Earth. Such shifts in thought and perspective, some seemingly minor, happen when you observe the commonplace in a new and unfamiliar setting.

We are now told that we may only be seeing about 4 percent of the stuff that our universe is made of (which raises the question, what is the other 96 percent?). Some questions about fundamental physics can only be made outside our atmosphere or away from the effects of gravity. The International Space Station, contaminated with human-induced vibrations, may not be the ideal platform for these observations, but it is currently in orbit and is available to be used. Many of these experiments are like remora fish, latching onto an opportune shark for a sure ride instead of waiting for the ideal shark to swim by. And we pesky humans, even though we cause vibration, occasionally come in handy when some unexpected problem requires a tweak, a wrench, or simply a swift kick.

Although we have preconceived ideas about how the International Space Station can be utilized, benefits of an unquantifiable nature will slowly emerge and probably will be recognized only in hindsight. The Station offers us perspective; it allows us to question how humans behave on this planet in ways that you can’t when you live there.