An In–Flight Movie Out an Airplane Window
I’ve posted a lot of lovely and wonderful time-lapse videos of aurorae over the past year or two, but not one quite like this: It was shot out an airplane window!
The photographer, Paul Williams, says on his YouTube page that he was on a flight from London to New York (which swings north across the Atlantic) when he noticed the aurora out his window. He took 770 three-second exposures, for a real-time length of about 38 minutes (I suspect it was actually a bit longer to account for the time between exposures as well). He balanced the camera on a backpack, aimed it out the window, and hoped for the best. I’d say out came out pretty well!
If you’re curious about the red and green colors, I’ve written about them before; they come mostly from molecules and atoms of oxygen as well as nitrogen. The waving sheets are due to fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. Aurorae are caused when subatomic particles sleeting from the Sun are funneled by the Earth’s magnetic field down into our atmosphere, where they excite the electrons in atoms, causing them to glow. Since the particles flow along the magnetic field lines, they act as tracers for the shapes of those lines.
Williams posted some of the stills on Flickr; in one he caught a meteor! That’s cool.
I fly a bit, and I usually take an aisle seat so I can get up and stretch my legs if I need to. But I’ll sometimes grab a window seat if I know we’ll be seeing something interesting. I’ve watched the Sun take over an hour to set as I’ve flown west, I’ve seen canyons galore, optical effects, the Moon rapidly rising as the airplane’s motion adds to the Earth’s rotation.
But I’ve never seen an aurora. Someday, perhaps, I’ll take a transcontinental flight that’ll take me far north, and that will finally be my chance to glimpse one. With my luck I’ll be on the wrong side of the plane. I’ll have to remember to keep a bribe handy if the opportunity ever does come up.
How the Heck Did This Exoplanet Get Where It Is?
Remember just the other day when I wrote that most planets orbiting other stars are found indirectly, and getting a direct picture of one is really rare?
Yeah, about that: Another one was just announced. Yay!
The planet is called HD 106906 b, and it’s about 11 times the mass of Jupiter. It orbits a star hotter and more massive than the Sun (for the astrogeeks: an F5V star with 1.5 times the mass of the Sun) that’s about 300 light years from Earth. As I pointed out in the other article, these planets are easier to find in the infrared when they are young and hot; the star and planet are only about 13 million years old — compare that to the age of the Earth, which is 4.56 billion years — and the planet was seen using the Magellan telescope in Chile, using an infrared detector.
Like the other three recently announced, HD 106906 b was confirmed as a planet because it is moving in the sky along with its parent star. If it were a background star or galaxy, the star would zip past it over the course of several years. Using earlier images from Hubble and the Gemini telescopes, the object was found to keep in step with the star’s motion. Therefore it must be a planet bound to the star.
Incredibly, though, it’s really far out from the star: 650 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun, or about 100 billion kilometers (60 billion miles). That’s an astonishing distance! Even Neptune orbits the Sun at 1/20th of that separation.
That’s actually a bit of a problem. We think planets form from a disk of material that swirls around a star as it’s born. But those disks don’t usually reach out anywhere near that far, leaving us with a mystery. As it happens, many stars form in clusters, collapsing out of knots of gas and dust in much bigger clouds. It’s possible this object formed that way along with the star, but it’s not clear how something that small could collapse out of the cloud. Usually, collapsing objects grow to much larger size, making star-like brown dwarfs or low-mass red dwarf stars at least.
What this means is that we don’t fully understand how stars and planets form. Of course, we know we don’t know everything! Objects like HD 106906 b are important, since they test the edges and boundaries of our ideas, which is where new ideas come from.
I want to point out that the astronomers found this planet because they were targeting stars known to have disks of dust around them. In the case of the star HD 106906, the disk wasn’t directly seen; the star was putting out more infrared light than it should, indicating the dust was there, glowing by its own warmth. In fact, by carefully analyzing that light the astronomers could infer the disk was actually a ring; it starts over two billion kilometers out from the star and stretches out to about 18 billion kilometers — that’s pretty big. The fact that it’s a ring means there may be planets orbiting inside it, closer to the star; the gravity from those possible planets sculpts the inner ring edge.
My first thought reading that was maybe the big planet formed closer in (where we know planets are created more easily) and interaction with another planet tossed it out to that huge distance. But it turns out that’s unlikely; a gravitational slingshot like that would play havoc with the dust ring, so again it’s likely the planet formed where it is, so terribly far removed from its warm host.
And one more thing. I want to highlight the image of the planet by Hubble; it was taken in 2004 (before it could be shown it was a planet and not a background star). The photos of the planet above used some fancy techniques to reduce the glare form the star so the planet could be seen; the Hubble image just shows the star and planet as they are. You may notice the star is, um, somewhat brighter. It’s actually millions of times brighter, which is why getting images of the planets themselves is so dang hard.
I’ve labored over data like this myself, and it’s tricky. What the team did here was good work. It’s a big step in understanding how planets form. More importantly in the short term, it shows that we can target stars with disks to look for distant planets, making it easier to find them.
For the moment, it’s still rare to get a snapshot of a baby planet. But, I hope, it’s only rare for the moment.
“Planetary Science Deserves Special Attention Because It Is Special”
You may know Bill Nye as the Science Guy, but he’s also a passionate supporter of scientific research and CEO of The Planetary Society, a phenomenal group that advocates for planetary exploration.
For the past couple of years, NASA’s budget for planetary mission has been on a bizzare roller coaster of cuts, restoration, political wrangling, and outright byzantine manipulation (see “Related Posts” below for details). In the end, the lion’s share of cuts to planetary exploration have come from the White House.
Nye took to YouTube to record an open letter to President Obama, asking him to restore America’s role as a global leader of science, specifically solar system science.
As usual, Nye is eloquent and persuasive. The Planetary Society has a page set up to help you contribute to the campaign, either financially or through getting the White House (and other political leaders) to hear your voice. Please go and make yourself heard.
I wholeheartedly (and perhaps more importantly, whole-brainedly) agree with what Nye said:
“Supporting a robust space program raises everyone’s expectations of what’s possible… it’s inherently optimistic. It’s part of our national character.”
Viral Illusion Will — and Should — Have You Doubting Your Eyes
Have you seen the latest optical illusion that’s been going around the web? You simply won’t believe your eyes.
Nor should you.
Here it is:
What’s the illusion, you ask? Those two vertical lozenge-shapes are the same shade!
Don’t believe me? Good! It’s always best to check things like this out for yourself. One way is to put your finger across the middle, blocking the part where they meet. When you do that, boom! You can see they’re the same shade of grey.
Here it is graphically:
Amazing, isn’t it? This is called the Cornsweet Illusion, after experimental psychologist Tom Cornsweet. Basically, it works by contrast: When we look at something, we perceive its color and shading relative to other things in the area and how we perceive it’s lit. In the picture here, we perceive the scene as three dimensional, with the light source to the upper left (note the shadow on the ground). The upper lozenge is shaded so that we see it as tilted away from us at its top (making the bottom look shaded), and the bottom one tilted the opposite way, so its top is lit.
That means our brain sees the upper lozenge as lit, while the bottom one is shadowed. That, coupled with the contrasting shading in between them, messes with how our brains interpret the image, and we think the upper one is darker than the bottom one.
But it isn’t. I actually went into Photoshop and selected the color of the top lozenge and created a square using it, then did the same for the bottom:
As you can see, both squares look the same… because they are. For the graphics geeks: They both have RGB values of (123, 124, 126).
This sort of illusion has been around a long time; the most famous version is probably the checkerboard illusion:
There’s even a video demonstrating it, which I love.
I have a full explanation of the checkerboard on the blog, but it’s the same sort of thing as the one above. Your brain gets bamboozled by the shadow cast by the cylinder, so it thinks the square in the shadow is lighter than the darker squares around it, but in fact it’s the same color and shade.
I love stuff like this! First, because it’s simply delightful. I think people enjoy seeing things that baffle them; puzzles are very enticing and addictive. But there’s another reason I’m so fond of illusions: They show us in no uncertain terms that what we see is not what we get. It’s extremely easy to fool our eyes and brain, and we should never simply trust that what we see, what we think is going on, is a fair and accurate representation of reality.
This is why we have science. Richard Feynman called it (with characteristic simplistic brilliance) “a way of not fooling ourselves”.
I agree. And it’s something to keep in mind when someone claims they saw a UFO, or a ghost, or Bigfoot. Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable, even when someone swears up and down “I know what I saw.”
They didn’t. Just like the illusion above, seeing something is just the beginning of the investigation, not the end.
Here are more posts I’ve written about illusions that will baffle and delight and madden you:
The Blue and the Green (my favorite of all time)
Tip o' the Necker Cube to David Smith.
Still Not Vaccinated? US Measles Cases in 2013 Spike to Three Times Normal
The CDC just announced that measles cases in the United States in 2013 tripled over the annual average. There were 175 cases (so far), when usually there are about 60.
Well, let’s see. In March, there were 58 cases alone in Brooklyn, N.Y., tied to a Jewish community that refused or delayed vaccinations. In Texas, a megachurch that preached anti-vaccination views had an outbreak with at least 20 cases. In North Carolina, 23 cases were reported in one outbreak; most of them in a religious (Hare Krishna) community that was largely unvaccinated.
In all three of these outbreaks, someone who had not been vaccinated traveled overseas and brought the disease back with them, which then spread due to low vaccination rates in their communities. It's unclear how much religious beliefs themselves were behind the outbreaks in Brooklyn and North Carolina; it may have been due to widespread secular anti-vax beliefs in those tight-knit groups. But either way, a large proportion of the people in those areas were unvaccinated.
By the numbers, those outbreaks alone are responsible for the huge increase in measles cases in the US this past year. And they are all due to people not getting vaccinated.
Listen: Measles is not a disease we should be screwing around with. 30 percent of cases develop complications like pneumonia, diarrhea, or ear infections. One in five children who contract it are hospitalized. One in a thousand will get encephalitis. One or two out of a thousand will die from it.
Yes, die. From a disease that is essentially wholly preventable with a vaccine. Worldwide, measles kills well over a hundred thousand people every year. That’s 18 deaths per hour.
Before the US vaccination program started in 1963, 400 – 500 people died from measles every year here. Tens of thousands more were made very ill and were hospitalized. Today, that number has dropped to almost —but not quite—zero. And that’s because of vaccines.
If you can, talk to your board-certified doctor and find out about what vaccines you need. Vaccines are not expensive, but even so, many places provide free vaccinations; the CDC has a page that lets you find locations of health centers near you.
And please, don’t listen to the nonsense promulgated by the anti-vaxxers. Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines do not contain a dangerous amount of toxins. In reality, vaccines work. They really do.
It’s been 50 years since the measles vaccine was approved for use in the US. The CDC recently honored Dr. Samuel Katz, who was largely responsible for its development. The vaccine is now used worldwide, and over that time, it has saved millions of lives. Millions.
As Katz put it, “The challenge is not whether we shall see a world without measles, but when.”
Hear, hear. In 1977 we wiped out smallpox. Measles? You're next.
Congratulations! It’s a Bouncing Baby Neutron Star!
Millennia ago, and 26,000 light years distant in the dim and somewhat unremarkable constellation of Circinus, a monster was born. And when that happened, it gave out a heck of a birth cry.
The baby in this case was a neutron star, and the bawling was the eruption of a supernova, the titanic and ridiculously powerful explosion that results from the death of a massive star.
That star probably started out with about 8 – 20 times the mass of our Sun. It was in a tight orbit around another massive star, the two circling each other every two weeks or so. At its heart, the star was fusing lighter elements into heavier ones; it was a gigantic nuclear furnace.
Eventually, after a few million years, that fuel ran out. The core collapsed, releasing a mind-numbing blast of energy. This blew out the upper layers of the star, ejecting them at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, creating the supernova. The core itself collapsed, forming an über-dense ball of subatomic neutrons few kilometers across. The explosion was probably not symmetric, but was instead slightly off-balance, providing an immense kick to the newly-formed neutron star.
The resulting system staggers the imagination: a white-hot star with the mass of the Sun but the size of a small city on a highly elliptical orbit around a normal (but also massive) star, sitting in the center of a vast cloud of superheated material screaming away at thousands of kilometers per second. Both the hot gas and the baby neutron star are so energetic they blast out X-rays… which is how we figured all this out.
Circinus X-1, as the system is called, is a high-mass X-ray binary, a pair of heavy stars in orbit around each other. We know of quite a few objects like this in the galaxy, but most of them are pretty old. But new observations of Cir X-1 have given astronomers a vital piece of information about it: its age. As the gas from the explosion slams into material around it, it slows down and cools, emitting X-rays. The physics of this is pretty well understood, and by measuring the temperature of the gas from the X-rays, astronomers determined the explosion must have occurred no more than 4600 years ago (and it may be younger still). This makes it by far the youngest high-mass X-ray binary ever found.
That’s a huge piece of the puzzle. As these binary systems age, they change. They cool off, they emit X-rays in different ways, the orbits of the stars change. Because this system is so young it’s a safe bet that what we see now is pretty much how it was when it formed. That allows astronomers to understand what was going on when the star exploded in the first place. That’s critical; imagine trying to understand how a baby human behaves by only studying adults. There’s a lot you could figure out, but you really want to be able to study a baby itself to know what’s what.
Now we have that baby. An octillion ton superhot baby.
I love the physics and science of this, how the pieces came together to figure it all out — I’ve spent my share of time studying supernovae. But despite all the technical details, one thing still strikes me…
Something over four millennia ago, humans didn’t have telescopes. When the light from the supernova reached Earth, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, and Egypt were flourishing, but the star was too far south for them to see well, or at all. Circinus is best seen from south of the Equator, where most cultures were hunter/gatherers; in South America for example the shift to farming was just getting started.
We know even very ancient civilizations were keen observers of the night sky; the cycles of the Sun throughout the year are tied to the seasons, and to a burgeoning agricultural civilization the import of that is obvious. The constellation of Circinus itself is nothing to notice; the stars in it are faint.
Until one day, one wasn’t. We have little or no records of astronomical observations from that part of world from back then. So I wonder, what did these people make of the sudden appearance of a new star in the sky, so bright it could have been the twin of Venus? Did they stand and gape at it, awe-struck, as it brightened over a few days and faded over months? What legends were spawned, what ideas were wrought, what fear or wonder was instigated?
If such an event were to happen now it would be the most significant astronomical event in the past several decades; every telescope on the planet and above it would be trained on the exploding star. We would study it, analyze it, dissect the information pouring in from it across all those thousands of light years. The knowledge we would gain would be unparalleled.
Yet I can also wish that given that chance, I would want to see it myself, to stand under the night sky and let the light that had traveled so far enter my eyes, tickle my brain. I can easily imagine the shiver that would travel down my neck as I soaked in the wonder of what I was seeing, the knowledge of what it truly is.
Perhaps we know more now than our ancestors did, with our basis of understanding through science, and our remarkable tools to investigate nature. But we still have much in common with them, and to stand in awe of the beauty of our surprising Universe is a characteristic I hope we never lose.
Make It So, Make It So, Make It So
If you’re a nerd (and you read my blog, so: guilty) then you may have already seen this, but it’s worth making sure anyway:
Brilliant! And it must have taken a lot of work.
… but the programmer in me has to wonder. If you had a time-tagged script, and all the episodes of a TV show online, you could then write a program that would do this for you. Enter the lyrics for a song, and it will search the script to find spoken dialogue to match the words in the lyrics. When it finds multiple choices for a word (common words will come up many times) it can give you the choice of which one to use. It would then automatically grab the clips from the video using the time tags, string them together, and output a continuous video like the one above. You’d probably have to fiddle with timing before and after each word and phrase, but that’s still way easier than doing it all by hand.
Hmmmm. If you actually input the music to the song, the program could even do a frequency analysis and then autotune the dialogue to match the pitch! Then you really would hear Picard singing this song.
OK, BABloggees… make this so. I’ll be magnanimous, and only ask for a 1% intellectual property fee for the idea. You can then donate it to CosmoQuest.
Katie Couric Gives Anti-Vaccine Ideas a Shot
On Wednesday, the daytime talk show Katie, hosted by Katie Couric, had a segment on the safety of Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV. This virus has been directly linked with cervical cancer, which kills 4,000 women in the United States alone every year. I’ve written about this vaccine many, many times, discussing its safety, and about various anti-vaccination groups that have fought against it. I will be clear from the start: I am highly skeptical, even critical, of these anti-vax claims, as everyone should be. Over a hundred million doses of the vaccine have been administered, and very strong studies have been done that have shown no link to either short- or long-term health problems.
To be even more clear: My wife and I did our research on Gardasil, and decided it was safe enough for our own daughter to get the vaccine.
The segment on Katie was both better and worse than I had hoped; better in that it did have some solid advice and info, and worse in that the program was very sympathetic to the anti-vaccination claims of some of its guests. Just as I did expect, the segment was loaded with anecdotes with no real evidence to support the anti-vaccination claims.
Post Hoc Is NOT Ergo Propter Hoc
It opened well, with Couric saying her daughters were up to date on their vaccines. But things slid downhill quickly thereafter.
Couric’s first guest was Emily Tarsell, whose daughter Christina died at the age of 21 after receiving Gardasil. Although Tarsell couldn’t give details due to an ongoing lawsuit, she did say Christina suffered a rash, fatigue, and dizziness after the series of shots. Christina died 18 days after her third shot.
As a parent myself, I cannot even begin to comprehend the horror of losing a child, and my heart goes out to Tarsell and anyone who has gone through something like this. But that doesn’t change the fact that correlation does not mean causation. Just because Christina had these symptoms after the shots does not mean they were caused by the shots, much less that the shot caused her death. Given how many tests the vaccine underwent before (and after) approval, the burden of proof of harm falls on the people who claim there was harm. This was not established at all during the segment; the claims were all anecdotal.
A very similar situation occurred in 2009, when a girl died shortly after receiving the vaccine, and claims were made the vaccine was the cause of death. However, it was later found the girl died due to a pre-existing cancerous tumor in her chest. The vaccine was not involved at all.
I’ll note that Tarsell is director of Gardasil network development for the National Vaccine Information Network, a noted anti-vax group I have written about before; they wanted to get anti-vax ads running on Delta airlines in-flight TV, for example (you can read more about that at Harpocrates Speaks), as well as in Times Square in New York City. NVIC has also tried to sue its critics into silence in the past. Needless to say, I don’t feel that NVIC is a reliable source of information on vaccines, having shown a historical bias against them. Tarsell’s involvement with them is worth considering.
Couric also discussed the vaccine with Dr. Diane Harper, who was a clinical investigator during the Gardasil studies. I was wary; the anti-vax movement has in the past used Harper’s words to make it seem like she is virulently anti-vax, but her stance is clearly more nuanced. Still, I wasn’t thrilled with some of what she said on the show.
She raised concerns about the efficacy of the vaccine—how effective it is, which is different from how safe it is—and asked parents to weigh the benefit versus “harm.” I put that word in quotation marks because doctors I’ve talked to always say “benefits versus risk,” which is very different. There is no proven harm to the Gardasil vaccine, although of course there is always risk to any procedure. However, as I pointed out above, the risk is extremely small.
There’s more she said I wasn’t happy with (like that the shot isn’t long-lasting; the CDC disagrees); but I’ll direct you to my Slate colleague Amanda Marcotte, who has more on this (as well as clips from the TV show).
The Plural of Anecdote Isn’t Data
Couric talked to another young woman who claimed to have had an adverse reaction—again, anecdotally. Her mother, Rosemary Mathis, was also on the show, and interestingly she is the director of a group called SaneVax (you can read more about them at Orac’s blog). Although they claim to “promote only Safe, Affordable, Necessary & Effective vaccines and vaccination practices,” they link to a video interview with Andrew Wakefield, who is essentially the father of the modern anti-vax movement, as well as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. RFK Jr. wrote an anti-vax article for Salon magazine so laden with errors they eventually pulled it. I also wrote about his anti-vax stance recently, and followed up when my editor talked to him personally after he complained about my article. The fact that SaneVax links to these men in their page about “Vaccine Safety” is clear indicator of their bias on the topic.
A Faint Light at the End of the Tunnel
Another doctor, Mallika Marshall, was also on the show, and this is where things got better. Dr. Marshall gave solid advice about vaccination and HPV, even stating that correlation is not causation. She also made the point that even though some cases of HPV do clear up on their own, it will persist in 10 to 20 percent of people who contract it, putting them at risk for cancer. Given how low the risk is for the vaccine, it is absolutely worthwhile to immunize as many people as possible. As she said, we should do this to “protect society at large,” which is really what vaccines are all about.
Finally, Couric chatted briefly with a mother and daughter who had the full course of vaccine with no ill effects at all. That was nice, but after showing very sympathetic interviews with the others, it seemed like an afterthought to the whole segment.
Balance? I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means.
The real problem with this entire segment on the “Katie” show was the false balance: The idea that there are two sides to this story. That is grossly unfair; the evidence is vastly on the side of the vaccine having extremely little risk, and no solid evidence at all that it causes harm. It’s not as though the research on this is split. Dedicating most of the segment to the stories of people who claimed it harmed them is not real balance or responsible journalism. Given too that people tend to be more sympathetic to those who have suffered, this segment was incurably biased. People who watch it are, in my opinion, very likely to become scared of a vaccine based on bad evidence. Seth Mnookin, author of the excellent book The Panic Virus (which discusses the rise of the anti-vax movement), calls the segment “fear-mongering.” I strongly urge you to read what he wrote about it.
The bottom line about all this, despite the confusion from the Katie show, is clear:
The HPV vaccine has been tested both for effectiveness and safety, and it has been shown to be an effective preventative measure against the virus with extremely small risk. No fatal injury due to the vaccine has ever been proven, and in fact the evidence presented in cases where girls died is anecdotal; no link to the vaccine other than timing (which can be coincidental) has been presented.
Let me put it this way: I’m glad my own daughter got her vaccination against this awful virus, and now, years later, if I had to do it all over again, I would.
[Correction (Dec. 5 at 16:30 UTC): In a paragraph in the original article, Christina Tarsell, the young woman who died, was listed as "Emily", her mother's name. I apologize for this mistake.]
Saturn’s Psychedelic Jet Stream
Saturn is a gas giant planet, nine times wider than Earth, and mostly atmosphere. We don’t see its surface as such, but the top of its clouds. That means we peer down on a wildly dynamic environment, in some ways like Earth and in others, well, alien.
And sometimes both. Sitting over the planet’s north pole is a vast circulation pattern of gas called the north polar vortex: 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) across, it forms a surprisingly regular hexagon, with winds and storms churning around inside it.
A new animated image above of the six-sided system was just released by astronomers, and is the first to show the motion of the vortex in color, and is the highest-resolution full view of it so far. We’ve seen spectacular shots of it before, but never the whole thing like this:
[Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton]
The images were taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004. In it you can see difference between the inside and outside of the hexagon; scientists can use these images to understand better what’s going on in Saturn’s complex atmosphere, including what material is in it, the sizes of the particles, and the temperatures of the gaseous constituents as well.
Incidentally, see that big whitish circle near the bottom of the vortex? That's a storm roughly 2000 km (1200 miles) across: comfortably larger than Texas. The huge hurricane in the very middle of the hexagon has also been seen in staggering detail before as well.
The hexagon looks freaky, but it’s actually not that surprising; we see similar things on Earth in our own jet stream (called Rossby waves). What I find most interesting is not that it exists at all but that it’s so symmetric and well-defined; on Earth it’s sloppier. Saturn spins far faster than Earth does (its day is about 10.5 hours long), so, coupled with its larger size, the Coriolis force is far larger there, helping define the vortex’s shape.
Images and animations like this help us understand what’s going on in that vast laboratory over a billion kilometers away. I am all for that; knowledge for its own sake is a wonderful thing. But we’re also trying better to understand our own planet, and it helps considerably to have something with which to compare and contrast it, even something seemingly so different. Inevitably with space science, looking out is very much the same as looking in. We try to understand the Universe so we can better understand our own environment.
A Volcanic Twofer... FROM SPACE
Regular readers know I love me a volcano picture from space, and today I have two.
The first is from one of my favorite volcanic hunting grounds, the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia. This forbidding region has several active volcanoes, and when they are covered in snow, they make for an extremely photogenic — if slightly terrifying — setting.
Klyuchevskaya (also spelled Kliuchevskoi) is one of a cluster of volcanoes on Kamchatka, and is pretty active. It’s a big one, reaching 4750 meters (15,500 feet) high, and has been continuously active for centuries. On Nov. 16, 2013, the International Space Station was 1500 km (900 miles) to the southwest of the stratovolcano when an astronaut snapped this highly oblique shot of it:
Ooooh, aaaaaah. The plume of ash and steam appears to be blown east by winds immediately after leaving the vent, and by the shadows I’m thinking it was early in the morning. I’ve written about Klyuchevskaya many times (like here and here and here), and every time it’s because of some amazing image of it taken from space. It’s truly lovely, if tremendously forbidding.
Note that essentially every large peak you see in that photo is a volcano. Yikes.
Let me now take you from the frozen north to the tropical southeast: Vanuatu, an archipelago of volcanoes east of Australia. Astronaut Mike Hopkins was flying over it in the ISS recently, and tweeted this spectacular photo of one of the islands in the chain:
He doesn’t say which one it is, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s Ambrym, a shield volcano with a caldera about 12 km (8 miles) across — you can see the rim of it circling around to the left in the photo. It was created in a huge explosion around 50 A.D., one of the largest in recorded history. It’s still a very active volcano, with two cones in the caldera: Marum (the oval one on the left) and Benbow (right; in the picture north is roughly down). The picture is a little overexposed (you can see it in the plume) but it shows the vegetation and the lack thereof perfectly.
The island is lightly populated, but there have been several deaths due to eruptions in the past; people were killed by lava bombs and overtaken by flowing lava. Still, the location looks lovely, and one day I’d love to visit it. I need someone with more money than sense to fund me for a year to travel the world and visit amazing places; if I ever got to Vanuatu I’d very much like to see Ambrym, as well as Gaua.
What a planet we live on! There are so many places to see, and so many things to learn about them.