Duluth, Minneapolis And Aurora From Orbit

Astronaut Jeff Williams from Winter, Wiscsonsin, delivers the keynote address before the Duluth Civil Air Patrol's Annual Awards Banquet Thursday. Photo: Bob King

Last night I was assigned to photograph NASA astronaut Jeff Williams speaking at the Duluth Civil Air Patrol awards banquet here in Duluth. Williams was born in Superior, Wis. just over the bridge from Duluth, but Winter, Wis. is now his hometown.

Williams, who’s logged over 362 days in space, spoke about life on the International Space Station while showing videos of astronauts working on experiments, celebrating Christmas and having fun. Mixed in were dozens of spectacular still photos he’d taken from orbit including the Himalayas, coral reefs (his favorites) and an image I’ve been hoping to see for a long time – the city of Duluth at night. His photo was even better than I’d imagined.

In this orbital view, Minneapolis is at lower left and Duluth and the western end of Lake Superior right of center. The aurora hovers well above the Earth's surface in the distance. Credit: Jeff Williams/NASA

The wide shot includes Minneapolis, Duluth and in the distance, a green arc of aurora following the the curve of the Earth. You can also tell it was taken in winter; the ground is covered in snow as far you can see.

The photo flashed up for only a couple seconds. Not knowing in advance it was coming, I wasn’t in a great spot to get a picture of it, but I grabbed what I could. When the program was over I introduced myself to Jeff, a very intelligent and affable guy, and sheepishly handed him a piece of paper with my e-mail address, hoping he’d find time one day to send me a high-resolution version of his photograph.

During his talk, I was surprised to learn how long it takes to “come back to Earth” in terms of getting your sense of balance back after living in the station’s weightless environment.

Commander Jeff Williams (left) and Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer talk to U.S. service members stationed in Baghdad in December 2009. Credit: NASA TV

Astronauts return from their missions in a Russian Soyuz capsule, landing on the Russian steppes with the help of a parachute. Williams described landing as a rough ordeal “like a train wreck” or “being in a car accident”. The first sensation of gravity is a powerful one.

“It feels like you’re being sucked down by a giant magnet,” he said. Although astronauts soon get accustomed to the Earth’s pull, a full recovery of their sense of balance takes up to two months. You and I can close our eyes and still walk forward or backward because the vestibular system in our inner ears, responsible for our sense of balance and orientation, is adapted to Earth’s gravity. Astronauts who spend a long time in space before returning to Earth would tip over and fall trying to do the same. Until their vestibular system kicks in, they have to rely on visual cues from their environment to stay balanced.

One audience member asked Williams what we’d be doing in space 20 years from now. He thought about it for a few seconds and replied “I honestly don’t know.” He then went on to say that the choices we make for our space program depend on our country’s political will. If the public and our representatives want to send astronauts to the moon or Mars, we can make it happen. Technology is up to the task, but the decision to appropriate the money and stay in the game for the long haul is up to us.

The waning crescent moon joins Venus Saturday and Sunday mornings at dawn. This map shows the sky around 6:30-45 a.m. or about an hour before sunrise. Created with Stellarium

It’s also up to us whether we want to get up tomorrow or Sunday morning to catch the crescent moon swinging by Venus, the brightest of the planets. The pair will be out at dawn and make a beautiful sight in the southeastern sky.

Finally, I should mention that the Jeff Williams’ second home, the International Space Station (ISS), continues to make passes during morning twilight over the U.S. The times listed below are Central Standard and good for the Duluth region. For times for your town, login to Heavens Above or click HERE and type in your zip code. Tomorrow we’ll have an update on what that orbiting solar sail NanoSail-D has been up to.

  • Saturday, Jan. 28 beginning at 5:27 a.m. and again 6:59 a.m. The first is a brief appearance in the east-northeast. The second is a pass across the northern sky
  • Sunday, Jan. 29 at 5:53 a.m. high across the north. Bright!
  • Monday, Jan. 30 at 6:19 a.m. Pass across the northern sky. Bright!
  • Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 6:44 a.m. Pass across the north again.
  • Weds., Feb. 1 at 5:38 a.m. only in the northeastern sky and again at 7:10 a.m. across the north
  • Thurs. Feb. 2 at 6:03 a.m. across the north
  • Friday, Feb. 3 at 6:28 a.m. across the north
  • Saturday, Feb. 4 at 6:54 a.m. high pass in the north. Bright!

3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Tweets that mention Duluth, Minneapolis and aurora from orbit | Astro Bob -- Topsy.com

  2. Stephan Burkhardt

    Hi Bob!

    That was an interesting article and a stunning photo of Duluth and the Lake Superior by night. One of the rare photos from space where you can see details on the Earth together with stars. I really had to get out my old school atlas to look up Duluth on the westernmost point of Lake Superior. This Lake Superior must be a giant body of water! I can only imagine, compared with the glacier lakes that I know, like our Lake of Constance in Southern Germany, or Lake Geneva, that look pretty large to me. Guess yours are much bigger.

    This morning brought a fine view to the South East; The fog that troubles our sight here in the area of Stuttgart, South West Germany so often, had lifted; or better, it had just fallen out of the crispy cold air 🙂 . It was interesting to see the crescent waning moon directly underneath Venus, about four degrees or “three knuckles” of my outstretched fist away. It’s also interesting to see the quick movement of the Moon: How fast it moves eastward from our morning’s six o’clock to your morning’s six, some eight (nine?) hours later, when the Moon – as shown in your Stellarium picture – has already moved a little further East.

    Enjoy a sunny Sunday,

    1. astrobob

      Hi Stephan,
      Thanks for writing and sharing your crescent moon observation. The difference in time between you and I is enough to make a significant change in the moon’s position. Glad to hear the fog lifted – we’re waiting here for skies to clear from snow clouds. The sun is out today at least.
      Yes, Lake Superior is huge! The photo shows only the western tip. I think it has the largest surface area of any fresh water lake in the world. If Jeff Williams gets back to me with the hi-res version of the photo, I’ll put it up.

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