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ISS Science Officer Don Pettit looks at the Canary Islands through the window of the Destiny Laboratory.
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Don Pettit Space Chronicles

Expedition Six
Space Chronicles #9

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By: ISS Science Officer Don Pettit

Natural Sights

The more you know about our planet, about our universe, the more you can see. You can see every geological feature ever written in textbooks. You can see fault zones of all kinds, moraines, basins, ranges, impact craters, dikes, sills, braided channels, strike and dipped layers, folding, meanders, oxbow lakes, slumps, slides, mud flows, deltas, alluvial fans, erratic boulders, glaciers, karst topography, cirques, tectonic plates, rifts zones, cinder cones, crater lakes, fossil sea shores, lava flows, volcanic plumes, vents,fissures, eruptions, exfoliated structures, dry lakes, inverted topography, latteric soils, and more.

You see clouds of every description and combination; nimbus, cumulus, stratus, nimbo-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, cirrus, jet contrails forming tic-tac-toe patterns, thunderhead, anvils, clockwise storms, counter-clockwise storms, hurricanes, and typhoons. Lightening storms flash like gigantic fireflies and behave as if they were synchronized across the length scale of half a continent. You notice patterns in clouds, that clouds over cold oceans look different than clouds over warm oceans. Clouds show flow structures. Sometimes you see what looks like a soliton moving across the cloud tops. There can be general overcast conditions except for small zones completely devoid of clouds with rather sharp boundaries forming fractal-like patterns within the cloud-cast seascape.

You see patterns on the ocean surface, swirls and vortices of large scale, wave diffraction patterns around capes and spits, solitary waves out in the middle of nowhere forming long lines, rivers spilling their sediment into ocean estuaries, and more.

You see light scattering phenomena of all kinds. At sunrise, at sunset, across the terminator sixteen times a day you can see crepuscular rays, forward reddened lobes, off-axis blue lobes, polarization peaks at 90 degrees to the sun, corona halos, and more. With binoculars you can count six distinct layers in the atmosphere where the outer one seemingly fades with exponential decay. Aurora Borealis and Australis inspire such awe from sheer beauty that you stare as if star struck. The glowing green forms slowly meander as if they are great celestial amoebas crawling across the sky. Vertical rays stream upwards with a faint red hue. On a dark night you notice that everywhere the upper atmosphere glows a faint green.

You catch an occasional meteor while looking down. You see stars and planets and our galaxy on edge. Perchance you might spot a ragged shadow from a total solar eclipse projected onto Earth. You have a textbook glimpse in the finer details in umbra, penumbra, and spherical bodies. You can see some Messier objects with your un-aided eyes and more with binoculars. 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 snowstorm blizzard in the surrounding vacuum. You observe other satellites, some in equatorial orbits, some in polar. You notice some satellites above your orbit only visible while looking away from Earth. Like a short-lived magnesium flare, some satellites flash brilliantly for a few seconds and fade into oblivion.

Whether in space or on Earth, you are amply rewarded for efforts made to observe the nature that surrounds us all, however, the more you think you know, the more you realize how little you actually do.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 05/13/2003
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