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World Tour Two (Written in September)

A couple of months ago I described the things you can see on a particular orbit of the Earth, and this week I decided I'd write about another of my favorite orbit tracks. Each orbit is different, of course, not only because of the different ground tracks but also because of the varying position of the sun (which side of the Earth is dark and what season it is). One of the most interesting things for me on this flight has been watching the seasons change down on the Earth. We launched in late April when it was springtime in the Northern Hemisphere. At the time, there was still snow on the ground up north. We gradually saw the northern summer days lengthen, until the very northern regions had continuous daylight while the very southernmost regions had continuous darkness in late June. Since then, the Earth has moved in its orbit so that the sun is nearly directly over the equator now, and the line between the dark and lit sides of the Earth runs straight north-south. I'm starting to see more icebergs floating in the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans now. Lately large areas of the Earth seem to be covered by hazy clouds, and the atmosphere seems much less clear than it did a few months ago. We only have a month left in this mission, and we will get to see the southern days lengthen while the northern days shrink.

The particular orbit track that I'm going to tell you about is definitely a crowd pleaser, and starts over the equator about a thousand miles west of the Galapagos Islands. Heading northeast, we make landfall on the southwestern coast of Mexico, near Acapulco. We then pass over Mexico City - which is absolutely enormous - certainly amongst the biggest cities on Earth. It looks like a big gray area amongst the brown color of the mountains, and is often smoggy enough to blur photos. If the sun is above, you can see occasional flickers of sunlight reflecting off buildings. It only takes about one minute to cross over the country of Mexico and then we are out over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Through a forward-facing window, you can see the Florida peninsula ahead and to the right as we head northeast running parallel to the Texas coastline. On the left are Houston and Mission Control, not to mention my house. At night in this area you can see the lights from the offshore oil rigs dotting the Gulf. We then cross the coastline near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which looks like a big flower sprouting out into the Gulf.

Mississippi River Delta
The Mississippi River Delta on the Gulf of Mexico - The dark areas are sediment carried downstream and deposited in the Gulf.

We then pass up the Appalachian Mountains heading towards the northeastern U.S. There are many small cities, and some large cities (like Atlanta) along the way. Through binoculars you can see that almost every one of the towns has a small general aviation airport, which is usually the easiest thing to spot. I like looking down and finding airports where I've landed an airplane before.

Approaching the Northeast we run up a huge line of cities - Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Boston. At night the city lights are almost continuous between them, so that most of the northeast coast looks like one giant city. You can't see many stars at night if you live around there. We didn't get to see the big blackout a couple of months ago because at the time our orbit was over the Southern Hemisphere at night. A couple of months ago though I did manage to see a different blackout - over India at night; I was looking out the window when all the lights in a small-sized city suddenly went out! The surrounding cities remained lit, so my guess was they had some sort of problem at their power plant. Anyhow, off to the left of New York City is upstate New York, with the town I grew up in (Webster) and my old university (Cornell). During the summer the weather around here is quite cloudy and hazy, but as fall weather approaches I hope to get more good photos of this area, especially as the leaves change color.

New York
New York City at dawn - this picture was taken on the morning of the finals of the US Open tennis tournament - which unfortunately is just off the left edge of this picture. I do have it in another picture though!

Next it is off for a quick trip across the Atlantic (which takes about 8 minutes). We make landfall over Brittany in France, and pass nearly overhead the city of Paris. Looking down at most of Western Europe you can see how little remains of the forests that used to cover this region. Then we fly right down the length of Italy, which really does look like a big boot kicking the football of Sicily! On the left is Greece, with the city of Athens. This area is almost always sunny and clear - with the bright blue waters of the Mediterranean dotted with lots of small islands. A couple of weeks ago Yuri saw an interesting sight here - several groups of ships all moving at high speed on parallel tracks. It looked like dotted white lines on the water. We still don't know what that was.

We cross the Mediterranean heading southeast. Up ahead on the mouth of the Nile River is the ancient city of Alexandria. Speaking of which, one of my spare time projects I've been working on is to see if I can photograph from space the locations of all of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, one of which was the Library at Alexandria. The Nile River stands out sharply because it has lot of vegetation growing on its banks, making it a dark green that contrasts with the yellowish white sands of Egypt. The river widens into a huge triangle-shaped patch just as it empties into the Mediterranean (which is why they call it a delta). This is probably the easiest place on the planet to photograph because I don't think that even once I have ever seen a cloud here, and because the landmasses are so distinctive. Just to the southwest of the delta is the city of Cairo, and another of the Seven Wonders, the Great Pyramids. They are easy to find because they are just south of a whitish patch in the desert that sits alongside the dark green river delta. I still find it amazing that I am observing man-made structures built over 3,000 years ago from the vantage point of an orbiting spaceship!

The Great Pyramids
The Great Pyramids - zoom in and look just slightly above and to the right of the center of the photograph.

We then fly down the length of the Red Sea, with Saudi Arabia off to our left, and the Horn of Africa up ahead. Then we head southeast out across the Indian Ocean. There is not much to see around here, mostly small puffy white clouds dotting the ocean, and the occasional small island ringed by a coral reef. We pass well south of Australia, then turn northeast and pass over New Zealand. The northern parts of New Zealand are volcanic, and there are numerous craters and dark, almost black, lava flows. We then finish this orbit by crossing the Pacific Ocean. Again along the way we pass many small tropical islands. Many of these islands are uninhabited and are only a few miles across. The shallow water in the reefs surrounding these islands is a bright green color, and through binoculars you can even see the white color of the surf crashing along the reefs ringing the islands. And that brings us to the end of another orbit.

By the time this mission is over we will have completed over 2,600 trips around the world!

Moorea
The tropical island of Moorea in the South Pacific.

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Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 10/28/2003
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