Getting Down to Earth, Through Space

A sound show teaches about the satellites that monitor the Earth’s pulse

If the World Science Festival that just wrapped up in the city accomplished nothing else—and I’m confident it accomplished a whole lot more—it was responsible for the cool, new, free app my phone now boasts.

More about the app in a moment, both to mine the drama and because, like most of the others on my cellphone, I’m in doubt what, if any, useful purpose it serves.

But the app, Earth Now, came to my attention Thursday on a visit to the festival’s NASA Orbit Pavilion. Located on New York University’s Gould Plaza, the pavilion looked like an oversize sterling silver nautilus shell.

The sculpture’s purpose—besides looking amazing and perhaps distracting students entering NYU Stern School of Business from the all-consuming business of commerce—was to instruct visitors, through a sound show, about NASA’s Earth science satellites, which monitor the planet’s pulse 24/7.

But before tackling the mission of all those orbiters out there, I had a question for the NASA poobahs present: Why don’t we yet have a camera focused on the Earth from far enough away that it appears as the beautiful glowing ball it is, suspended in interstellar space?

That’s the app I really want. For starters, it would remind us of what a charmed world we inhabit and not to abuse it or take it for granted. It also might reinforce the notion that we’re all in this together and need to stop squabbling.

Michael Green, a NASA official, mentioned there are now live views online from the international space station.

I can’t yet attest to the efficacy of the images because they were “loading” on my computer and taking their sweet time.

“I want one farther away,” said David Delgado, a visual strategist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., and a co-designer of the NASA Orbit Pavilion with StudioKCA, a Brooklyn-based architecture and design firm.

My opinion, exactly.

“I want to see the Earth a little bit smaller,” Mr. Delgado continued. “ Carl Sagan was eloquent when he talked about that.”

But that was a quarter-century ago.

“When you look at that little blue dot,” he went on, “it gives you such a huge perspective shift.”

“You realize how insignificant we are,” said Tracy Day, who launched the World Science Festival in 2008 with her now-husband, Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and best-selling author.

Dan Goods, another visual strategist with the JPL who also had a hand in designing the Orbit Pavilion, explained the symbolic significance of its nautilus shape.

“When you listen to a sea shell, you’re listening to the ocean. In ours, you listen to spacecraft studying the Earth.”

Not since I was 5 have I thought the sound I was listening to in a seashell was anything but rushing air. But he’s the scientist.

As we approached the sculpture, Mr. Delgado described the challenge its designers faced.

“You can’t hear them,” he said of satellites. “Space has no sound.”

Nothing? Not even pinging?

So the designers decided to put the satellites—NASA has 20 of them taking readings of the land, atmosphere and oceans—to music, or at least appropriate sound. For example, ocean satellites were represented by running water, atmospheric satellites by the sound of the wind.

“If the sound goes away, the satellite has gone out of view,” explained a NASA employee who was serving as master of ceremonies for the 10 or so humans and one black Lab mix seated on the ground, waiting for the five-minute audio show, broadcast on speakers large and small throughout the shell, to start.

Which it did with the roar from the launch of a rocket ship. I was worried the dog might flip out and start biting people at random. But he merely perked his ears before returning to a prone position, as composed as John Glenn.

Mr. Delgado also told me about NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was designed to show the distribution of natural and man-made greenhouse gases. “It looks like the Earth is breathing,” the scientist explained.

That’s when I learned about the Earth Now app. It shows satellites orbiting the globe, though I suspect it’s a simulation rather than happening in real time.

You also can access the latest data on air temperature, ozone, variations in the gravity field—I thought it was uniform—and sea-surface salinity among other reading; the planet a color-coded orb you can spin with your thumb.

Until we get it together to launch that Earthcam halfway between here and the Moon, this will do.

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