Earth From Space

“You’re weightless, things are floating around like in an aquarium. Then you look out and see the earth. You notice how small and completely finite it is. You see how thin the atmosphere is, like an onion skin. I’m a lot fonder of the earth now, I’m loyal to the earth, as opposed to country or town. Maybe we should send a lot of politicians up there.” – Piers Sellers

Biometeorologist, former astronaut, and now Director of the Science and Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Piers Sellers shared his thoughts on the first time he saw Earth from the space shuttle at a recent lecture given at the Woods Hole Research Center. He described an assembly trip to the international space station in October 2002, one of three such flights he made. As a meteorologist, Dr. Sellers studies the interaction of the biosphere with the atmosphere to construct climate system models. “I’ve spent most of my life making carbon models, putting toy worlds together on computers.”

With such a surprisingly thin atmosphere surrounding the earth, from the spacecraft Dr. Sellers could see the aurora borealis circling the North Pole, volcanoes, the Severn River basin in his native England, cloud patterns and city lights. He noted that satellite images of city lights and arable cropland provide vital information about how quickly cities are growing and spreading, and how agriculture and food supply are changing. These data complement direct on-the-ground measurements to study the effects of the world’s burgeoning population.

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Piers Sellers performs maintenance on the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA.

In a May 2010 flight he saw the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, “Goop three hundred miles across—a giant whirlpool streaming out long strings of crude oil.” He could also clearly see other effects of human presence on the earth, such as deforestation and smog over China, and natural events such as tropical convergences lined up along the equator, and dust storms from Saharan Africa moving across the Atlantic to the Amazon Basin, where they provide important nutrients to the forests.

NASA manages a fleet of satellites that provide a host of vital data about Earth, including ocean salinity, chlorophyll concentrations around landmasses, melting ice and changing landscapes.

“Now the space station is truly an international collaboration among seventeen countries, a smashing success,” emphasizes Dr. Sellers. He believes the US will continue to lead in developing space technology and in space exploration, and that “the US government will be taking us to Mars,” probably in the 2030s.