7 NASA ISS Science Officer Ed Lu floats upside down
behind visiting European Space Agency Astronaut
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Tour Two (Written in September)
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.
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.
River Delta on the Gulf of Mexico - The dark areas are sediment
carried downstream and deposited in the Gulf.
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
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
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!
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.
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!
Pyramids - zoom in and look just slightly above and to the
right of the center of the photograph.
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.
time this mission is over we will have completed over 2,600
trips around the world!
island of Moorea in the South Pacific.