Downtime on the High Frontier

/ by James Oberg /

When liberated from the rigors of routine, scientists in space make some remarkable discoveries.

Click on the image to watch astronauts make observations in space.

March, 2001: Andy Thomas, career astronaut, veteran of both Mir and the International Space Station, looked out the window of the ISS toward the approaching horizon. He was off-duty, in between shifts, when suddenly he saw a shimmering ring of fire lying flat on the surface of the earth. Instead of its coming closer, which is what Thomas expected, the ring pulled farther ahead; from his perspective, as a result of foreshortening, it eventually flattened out. Thomas could clearly discern features of the Earth’s surface sliding beneath the burning, crimson rim. It was like nothing he had ever seen. It was like nothing he had ever heard of any other astronaut having seen, either. He was absolutely baffled.

“As the ring came nearer and nearer to the horizon, I almost lost sight of it,” Thomas explains. “But then, this bright light appeared in exactly the same place. And, a moment later, I was looking at a rising full moon.”

Thinking that the ring must be some sort of rare multiple reflection phenomenon, created by the moon’s image hovering below the horizon, Thomas returned to the window an hour and a half later, ready to observe the apparition again; this time, he had brought his recording equipment. But, despite the scheduled moonrise, nothing happened. “The moon rose normally. There was no ring of fire. Some atmospheric condition must have changed.” The space station now was orbiting the Earth a thousand miles farther east. Whatever localized conditions had created the original apparition no longer existed. Neither Thomas nor any other astronaut has seen such a thing since. But the memory and the awe, like the thing itself, continue to hover on the edge of the known universe.

“I don’t know what it was,” Thomas says, six years later, “but I know that I saw it.”

This was not the first time that Thomas had stumbled upon an intriguing phenomenon in a rare moment of repose. Routine aboard a spacecraft is notoriously brutal, and when astronauts are not engaged in day-to-day maintenace, equipment handling, excerisce or pre-ordained and tightly structured research, typically they use the time to catch up on some much-needed sleep. “We don’t do real laboratory research in space,” Thomas observes. “We operate expensive, highly specialized scientific gear according to a well-defined script.” But during the four months that Thomas spent on Mir in 1998, he wasn’t allowed to use most of the Russian equipment because he hadn’t been fully certified by Russian officials, and since the amount of US equipment was limited by storage and power constraints, he found himself in unusual circumstances: He actually had free time.

Granted, astronauts have been whiling away the hours clowning around with droplets of juice since the days of Apollo, but Thomas’s attraction to liquid went well beyond its ability to amuse. Rather, he was conducting specialized experiments, usually without the permission or knowledge of his two Russian shipmates. “My academic background is in fluid mechanics, and here I am in zero gravity where fluids behave in ways we can only imagine on Earth,” he explains. Thomas was particularly interested in two physical properties of microgravity: surface tension, which determines the shape of free-floating globs of fluid, and buoyancy, which behaves strangely in space, since without the effects of weight, bubbles can’t rise to the surface.

As it turned out, Mir was a perfect place to observe fluid dynamics since it was awash in loose water—literally. The inside of the station’s outer hull, which was designed to stay warm and condensation-free, had become a kind of cosmonaut’s attic, where spare equipment and supplies were stashed. The lack of air flow to parts of the hull on the station’s dark side created cold spots where cabin humidity condensed into sloshing puddles, sometimes a few inches thick. Under the force of surface tension, the moisture would creep along the ship’s structural frames and collect in the hollows or corners of joints, which the crew would suction into waste containers during their weekly chores.

Upon encountering Mir’s condensation pools, with their curious clumping effect, Thomas decided to observe the phenomena more precisely. He made his own “clump catchers” out of spare wire. He observed that a dollop of water on a simple metal cross would slide to the intersection and enrobe it. On a metal ring, the water would stretch like a drum skin across a frame, thicker at the contact with the rim and thinner in the middle. When the frames were jostled or shaken rhythmically, the water would dance, contained within a weak elastic envelope of surface tension. Although he didn’t discover any new phenomena, Thomas was observing fluid dynamics under very unfamiliar conditions, so he recorded the behavior, nonetheless.

“Once we get back to the moon, or out to Mars, this is the way real science will need to be done,” he explains, “by tinkering with a generic set of flexible instruments, not working your way down a checklist.”

To better appreciate Thomas’s point, consider the experience of Michael Fincke who, during a 2004 mission aboard the International Space Station, found himself in a similar situation. Because of the February 1, 2003 Columbia catastrophe and its resultant grounding of three shuttles, most of Fincke’s laboratory gear was stuck on Earth. Although NASA had scrambled to develop investigation protocols using the equipment already on board, or supplies that could be stowed on quarterly Russian robot resupply rockets, it still could not find specific tasks for each of Fincke and the crew’s waking moments. So, NASA encouraged some dabbling.

Wholly unaccustomed to anything other than being overbooked with routine research, Fincke started playing around with lab gear to see what he might turn up. He melted a pea-sized ball of solder on a wire in the ISS’s near-weightless conditions. He adjusted the contact between his handheld heating probe and the wire. He watched the solder melt into a perfect sphere, with some of the resin separating out on the surface. Then came the unexpected. The molten ball of solder began to rotate around the wire to which it clung. The closer Fincke moved the heater along the wire toward the glob, the faster it would spin. So thoroughly engrossing was the spectacle of the molten silvery metal glob working itself into a nearly flat sheet from centrifugal force, he almost forgot to grab his safety goggles. Hazard addressed, he began experimenting with different heating rates to see if the spinning effect was repeatable and controllable. It was. And each time the spin started, it was in the same direction.

Fincke took high-quality analog and digital video for transmission to scientists on Earth, who subsequently posited a theoretical effect of gradient heating on surface tension that seemed to explain what Finke had observed. The effect is so slight that it’s not detectable under Earth-gravity conditions.

This wasn’t all that Fincke discovered when freed from the rigors of his daily routine. “As we were going over the night side of some parts of the planet, all of a sudden you could see the moon illuminate some waterways—the poorly mapped, or temporary ones—that you might not be able to see during the day. It’s not the sun glint,” he explains. “It’s the moon glint.” In daytime, sun glint dominates, and the air is more turbulent; but at night, intricate webs such as the Amazon delta are “breathtaking,” and to Fincke’s practical mind, “useful someday, if we pay attention.”

That Thomas’s and Fincke’s discoveries occurred largely by accident and, arguably, might never have come about were it not for the curiosity, attentiveness, and sense of play engendered by both astronauts having ample unstructured time raises profound questions about how best to conduct scientific research in space. An observation attributed to a geologist during the Apollo program may still apply: “If human beings can do much better science in space than robots, why does NASA make its astronauts do science like robots?” It does if the discoveries of Paul Scully-Power, an Australian-born oceanologist, are any indication.

Sent into orbit on a routine shuttle mission in 1984, Scully-Power, who had helped train earlier astronaut crews, saw unexpected things because he took unusual viewpoints. By watching the sea surface from a steep angle, looking into sun glare, he saw features of the reflected light that revealed telltale characteristics of the ocean: boundaries of currents, wind-induced roughness of the surface, standing waves passing through narrow straits, signs of pollution or plankton blooms, and other localized conditions. No automatic observation systems had ever noticed these features since they had been programmed to get the ‘best’ view by looking straight down. Only when someone was set loose, with instructions to “just look around,” were these phenomena discovered.

Likewise, the phenomenon of “noctilucent clouds”—subtle and beautiful chalk-dust smears high above the normal edge of the atmosphere—which had long been of interest to meteorologists was best studied from space. The clouds, which are visible to dark-adapted eyes at night, but very difficult to capture on film, were sketched by cosmonaut Georgiy Grechko, who had spent long hours (when he should have been sleeping) making drawings of what he saw from a Soviet space station in 1975.

Later space travelers, like Don Pettit, who had been the Science Officer on the space station when Columbia was lost, and thus had to kick off the program of “less supplies but more investigations,” were keenly interested in the phenomenon. “I have been observing and photographing large-scale noctilucent clouds in the southern hemisphere,” Pettit wrote in his log in 2003. But searching for these peculiar formations was, according to Pettit, “almost like chasing after a techno-version of will-o’-the-wisp.” Their global distribution is poorly measured. “Rarely have they been seen in the southern hemisphere, and perhaps only for the last 20 years. Even rarer is photographic evidence.”

Working from observation to hypothesis, Pettit wrote, “This leads one to speculate that they may have something to do with industrialization and some global man-derived effect on our environment.” While the connection between noctilucent clouds and human impact on the Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t yet been made, if it ever is, such off-duty observations, gleaned over the past 30 years by astronauts gazing out into space, will be among the most crucial data.

To look out the window of a spaceship is literally to watch the world pass by. Surely, we have not become so jaded that a half-century of flight could dim our sense of wonder at seeing the Earth floating amidst an endless sea of stars; yet, we must admit that such images have become almost commonplace. But, in the early years of human spaceflight, there was no such thing as commonplace; each and every vista inspired a sense of awe. And so, it is with no small measure of irony that one of the most remarkable visual discoveries was made some 30-odd years ago when an astronaut’s eyes were closed.

The observation, which has had profound implications for the design of future missions to the planets, was not only a complete accident, but also born entirely out of a fundamental human need: sleep. While resting on the way to the moon in 1969, Buzz Aldrin witnessed occasional streaks of light shooting across the darkness behind his closed eyes. Despite the jet pilot instinct never to mention any physical condition that flight surgeons might use as an excuse for removal, Aldrin asked his crewmates if they too had seen these flashes of light. They had.

Soon thereafter, NASA scientists realized that the streaks were cosmic rays hitting the retinal nerves—and possibly killing a string of cells with every impact. Most travelers in low Earth orbits hadn’t noticed such streaks, as they were shielded by Earth’s magnetic field, but subsequent moon voyagers were tasked to watch for them, and saw them, too. Whether these high-energy particles could inflict cumulative damage on an astronaut’s eyes—and, even more ominously, their neurons—during a three-year round-trip to Mars remains an open question, but without Aldrin having noticed and reported this unusual activity, scientists would not have known to ask.

It goes without saying that such a discovery could never have been made by a machine. Nor could it have been observed during some scripted round of routine research. All of which is not to suggest that machines and structured scientific inquiry do not have their place. As these case studies reveal, having spare time to tinker, question, contemplate, and observe is essential if we are ever to understand—or, more simply, bear witness to—the mysteries of the universe.

Originally published June 21, 2007

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