For centuries, humanity has looked towards the stars for answers like why we’re here, what our purpose is in this universe, and more importantly, to learn if there other lifeforms out there. Humans have a strong drive to explore the great unknown and expand their knowledge, which is why space exploration allows us to quench our thirst for knowledge.
But while everyone else has been busy observing the cosmos, the astronauts at the International Space Station discovered that the most mysterious phenomenon was a lot closer to home.
Strange Phenomenon in Outer Space
Outer space isn’t as pitch black as some people assume. There are all kinds of strange phenomenon out there like nuclear pasta, which is considered one of the strongest substances in the universe. It forms from whatever matter remains from a dead star. When protons and neutrons in a star’s husk are exposed to powerful gravitational forces, they turn into pasta-like tendrils, which is where the name nuclear pasta came from. But that’s not all you’ll find in space.
Space is Full of Wonders
Black holes, worm holes, pulsars, and quasars are just some of the phenomenon that scientists have been able to discover with the help of powerful telescopes. But the need to learn more about our universe has pushed humanity to build rocket ships that have allowed them to journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere to see what else is out there and hopefully encounter other lifeforms.
Rocket Ships Weren’t Enough
There’s only so much that astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong could do to further humanity’s knowledge of the universe when they first landed on the moon in 1969. It’s why NASA sent probes like the Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 and New Horizons to help us understand our solar system and beyond. But that wasn’t enough.
The ISS Has Been Around for Decades
On November 20, 1998, five space agencies from around the world, of which NASA was one, built the International Space Station. This modular space station is the largest habitable satellite to date and has a crew complement that averages anywhere from 7 to 11 astronauts, all of whom have learned to live and work together to achieve their primary goal—space exploration. But a lot of things can go wrong in outer space.
NASA Was Alarmed
NASA grew alarmed when they received a transmission from outer space. They realized they weren’t being contacted by aliens from outer space, but by humans floating aboard a massive space station orbiting the Earth. Usually these astronauts only contact ground control for two reasons. They’re either providing reports on the status of the onboard crew or there’s a problem. And it was the latter that they were concerned about.
Houston, We Have a Problem
In 1970, astronaut Jack Swigert contacted NASA Mission Control Center and said, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” This was later misquoted as “Houston, we have a problem,” in the 1995 film “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks. But what exactly had gone wrong aboard the Apollo 13 that had forced Swigert to send out a distress call to Earth all those years ago?
Apollo 13 Taught NASA a Lot
Apollo 13 was a space craft launched on April 11, 1970. Its mission was to land on the moon, but this proved impossible after one of the oxygen tanks onboard failed. So, the mission was aborted and the crew was forced to make a return trip back to Earth. But this was not the last time something would go wrong during a mission. In fact, there was one incident where one crew was not quite as lucky as those aboard the Apollo 13.
The Challenger Explosion Was a National Disaster
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded moments after the launch. There was no distress call before the explosion, but transcripts of the crew’s compartment conversations indicated that they activated their emergency breathing packs seconds after the initial blast. This meant that the crew may have been aware of what was about to happen right before the ship disintegrated. Now ground control was concerned that they were facing a potentially new disaster up in space.
No Way to Help
NASA had ways of taking control of certain key systems in the event that consoles aboard a ship or a space station are non-operational. But if there was a major problem like massive damage to the oxygen tanks, there was no way they could prepare a space shuttle in time to rescue the crew aboard the station.
In the best case scenario, such an operation would become a mission to retrieve the bodies. Fortunately, that’s not why the massive space station was contacting them. So why did the space crew seem so alarmed?
Something Caught Their Eye
The astronauts living aboard the space station are used to looking out into the abyss with their eyes and the sophisticated sensor technology provided by the station’s vast satellites. But as it turns out, in all this time, they never stopped to consider that the most intriguing phenomena was actually occurring in the big blue globe they were orbiting around.
Earth Has Been Underestimated
Humans have been living under Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years and have explored just about every corner of the planet. But while there are still plenty of caverns, underwater mysteries and the center of the Earth that remains unexplored, most people look at Earth as a giant floating ball full of humans with problems. But the astronauts had a different point of view.
Earth Left Them Mystified
When the astronauts glanced back down at the planet they called home, they noticed something that left them mesmerized. Was it an alien spacecraft in orbit of the planet? Were aliens finally making contact with humans? Sadly, no. But there was something quite wonderful that made everyone’s jaw drop when the astronauts took a look at their home world.
Astronauts Have a Huge Advantage
Astronauts have the best view in the universe because they’re aboard the International Space Station. This allows them to use powerful lenses and enhanced cameras to take snaps of all sorts of phenomenon of outer space as well as Earth. In fact, there’s no better time to take photos of Earth than while orbiting hundreds of miles above its atmosphere.
The Milky Way Meets the Sahara Desert
This photo shows a cluster of stars which is actually the outer edges of the Milky Way in the background. Meanwhile, from this angle of Earth’s orbit, astronauts noticed that the Earth had a sandy-orange hue. That’s because they were looking at Africa’s Sahara Desert from high above. The orange-y color became more pronounced when the sun’s rays hit the planet and reflected on the sand. But that’s not the only beautiful thing they saw while orbiting Earth.
They See the Moon Several Times a Day
Humans living on Earth only get to see the moon when the sun goes down. In some cases, the moon is visible during the daytime, usually when the sun starts to set or early in the morning. But it takes the station 90 minutes to orbit Earth, so the onboard crew get to see the moon a total of 16 times a day. This photo, which looks like a beautiful oil painting, shows the space between Earth’s atmosphere and the moon high above the planet.
Astronauts Experience Auroras All the Time
There are tons of magic places where humans can experience the sky glowing with auroras such as Tasmania and New Zealand or Tromso, Norway, and even Yellowknife, Canada. But the crew get to see auroras dancing on the Earth’s atmosphere all the time and it’s even more amazing because there’s no light pollution around that can alter this majestic phenomenon. But the crew claim that this snap doesn’t even come close to describing just how amazing it is to see an aurora from space.
The Lights of Spain
Spain is a spectacular place to visit with its gothic cathedrals, castles, mountain villages and beach resorts. But its appearance from space is visually entertaining for the crew at night. That’s because the entire country lights up with life after the sun sets. The lights come from the variety of homes and businesses which are visible from above when there are no clouds in the sky.
Humanity’s Impact on Earth
The International Space Station crew witness all sorts of things happening on Earth, including how humanity has impacted the planet. This image shows a man-made fish farm in the northern coast of China. But no, this is not a black and white image. The grayscale is the horrible aftermath of years of pollution. While this certainly gives the crew cause for concern, the images aren’t always this gloomy.
The Himalayas From Space
The Himalayas are a vast mountainous network in Asia that form a barrier between the Plateau of Tibet to the plains of the Indian subcontinent. It’s why the crew are able to redirect the cameras on the station to take photos like this one that show tendrils where the rockface and the snow-covered surface meet. This photo also shows the network of rivers that are prominent in the Himalayas.
The Earth is Like an Oil Painting
At first, the crew had no idea what they were seeing. To them it looked like Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting because of all the swirls. To others it seemed like foamy soap water. But as it turns out, this is the Iranian desert, which looks like this from space when the sunlight hits the massive area that’s covered with stone, sand and virtually no form of vegetation.
The Great Barrier Reef
Like the Iranian desert, the astronaut crew at the International Space Station had no idea what this was when they first took a snap of it. At a glance it looks like something one would expect to see through a microscope. Others might say it looks like a glacier floating free from a landmass. But this is actually the Great Barrier Reef seen from thousands of miles above. But the next photo is both beautiful and terrifying.
Hurricane Isabel caused a great deal of devastation when it hit the east coast of the United States in 2003. Since hurricanes bring heavy rains, high winds, tornadoes and flooding, people on Earth don’t have the luxury of admiring them. But from outer space, the astronauts saw what looked like a swirl of clouds with a hole in the middle moving across the water towards the landmass. And while the storm was beautiful, the crew was well aware that the devastation it caused was terrible.
The Monsoon in Thailand
From up above, the astronauts captured images of the areas where the Mekong River flooded over. This occurred because of a series of aggressive monsoon rainstorms. Luckily, they used these photos to help the people on Earth pinpoint the areas that were hit the hardest and needed rescuers the most. So even in space, the crew was able to lend a hand to those suffering down below. But the next image left these scientific minds flabbergasted.
They Couldn’t Identify It
By this point, the crew had seen all kinds of occurrences happening on Earth. Some were beautiful, others were simply terrifying. But in 2019, the astronauts caught sight of something that left them concerned. They weren’t sure what they were looking at and that was the scary part. What was happening on the planet below? Without any hesitation, they reached out to a team of researchers on Earth and sent them the images of what they were seeing.
A Small Plume of Smoke
The astronauts scratched their heads in disbelief after noticing what looked like some kind of plume of smoke above the atmosphere. It was almost impossible to define because there were a lot of clouds in the area. So, the team had no choice but to wait for the clouds to clear out of the way to take another look. Then they saw what was causing the smoke plume and it shook them to the core.
It Was a Volcanic Eruption
When they got a better look, the crew realized that they were witnessing an explosion of mass proportions caused by fire and gas. This created a cloud that sent a blanket of ash and debris across thousands of square miles. Although the scenery was absolutely mesmerizing, a scary thought entered the minds of the crew. Which volcano had erupted and was there a town full of people in danger down below?
The Raikoke Volcano
The Raikoke Volcano is on the Kuri Island right off Japan’s coastline and while volcanic eruptions can cause a great deal of devastation, the island is fortunately uninhabited. So, no property damage, injuries or loss of life occurred as a result of the eruption. But it wasn’t the first time it had erupted. In fact, the first time the Raikoke Volcano erupted was in 1778 and it happened again in 1924.
The Photos Went Viral
The photos taken by the crew of the International Space Station were sent to Earth for NASA and its space agency counterparts in other countries to study. The images eventually went viral once they were released on the internet much to the joy of online fans of outer space. But this experience made NASA consider the major impact the station’s monitoring capabilities could have to avoid a potential apocalypse.
NASA’s Post-Apocalyptic New York City
Although NASA’s primary goal is to explore space, they are very much aware that there are dangers out there that could come crashing down on the planet with very little notice. Should that happen, scientists want to be prepared, so they started working on a model of a post-apocalyptic New York City and the man responsible for spearheading this project is none other than an Air Force veteran.
Air Force Veteran Believes the End is Nigh
Lindley Johnson, an Air Force veteran of 23 years, was recruited by NASA in 2003. But his main focus isn’t necessarily about seeing what’s out there in outer space. He’s much busier studying the possibilities of how the world may someday come to an end, which is why he has been working on the post-apocalyptic New York City model. But while most end-of-the-world prophets are a bunch of loonies, Johnson is anything but crazy.
He’s a Planetary Defense Officer
Johnson is NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, which gives him access to all sorts of data that he analyzes to determine how the world might end and how to go about protecting the planet from this seemingly inevitable end. But what type of threats does Johnson believe Earth will face someday and is there any truth behind them or are his theories nothing more than conspiracy theories?
Humanity Is Doing a Great Job
Johnson is aware that humanity is doing a great job on its own at bringing about the end of the world. For years the threat of nuclear weapons annihilating all life on the planet has seemed like a real possibility. But there’s also the threat of damage to the environment, like global warming and pollution, that could compromise the food sources and the oxygen on the planet. But that’s not what he’s concerned about.
He’s Worried About Space Rocks
Meteors and asteroids like the ones that reportedly killed the dinosaurs are the threat on Johnson’s mind. From his perspective, it has happened once before and altered the planet forever. This led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and ultimately the rise of humanity. But while most space rocks are so tiny that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, Johnson would like to protect Earth from the likelihood of a bigger object crash landing on the planet.
An Asteroid Could Hit the Ocean
Johnson’s research suggests that there is one silver lining to an asteroid hitting the Earth. Since the planet is 71 percent water, an asteroid about the size of several football fields would most likely crash into the ocean. However, he’s not the kind of scientist to deal in chances or rely on hope that everything will be okay. There are too many potential scenarios that could bring about the end of the world and it’s his job to study all hypotheses, like the New York City scenario.
Disasters Occur Thousands of Years Apart
Johnson and his team have theorized that major world catastrophes, like an asteroid strike, occur thousands of years apart from one another. If that were the case, then humanity should be safe for the time being, but Johnson knows that space is unpredictable and he doesn’t want to risk being wrong. There have been many collisions and close encounters with massive space rocks over the years, after all. And all it would take is one unlucky strike to wipe out a major metropolitan city.
Evidence of Past Space Rock Collisions
There are a couple of places on Earth that still show evidence of the last time a major space rock crashed on Earth, like the meteor crater in Winslow, Arizona. Although it’s considered a natural landmark that attracts tourists, it’s also an eerie reminder of what may go wrong someday. But the last thing Johnson’s team wants is to see cities like Los Angeles or Manhattan turn into a massive crater. But if it does happen, they want to analyze the potential damage.
They Were Operating on a Low Budget
Johnson’s mission is to assess how much the damage from a collision would spread if an asteroid hit a major city. Creating something like the New York City model is a major undertaking and sadly, Johnson doesn't have a big budget for it. Fortunately, his team managed to get Congress to see why their work was so important. So in 2015, Congress agreed to bump up the project’s budget from $5 million a year to $50 million.
He Had What He Needed
Johnson’s financial increase allowed him to do what he and his team had been trying to do for years, which was to collect enough data to prepare for what could potentially be one of the worst moments in human history. And the key to facing such a threat was data. With this information, they could come up with all kinds of scenarios on how to stop a threat like an asteroid before it reached the planet. But not all of his data was open to the public.
NASA Keeps Some Secrets from the Public
If people around the world knew how often they came close to meeting their end, there would be global panic. But as it turns out, there have been over 2,000 asteroids detected in our solar system that came awfully close to crippling Earth, and possibly ending all life on the planet. Naturally, NASA kept this horrible truth from the world to avoid panicking everyone. So how exactly does Johnson plan to stop an asteroid from ending the world?
The Fallout Would Be Too Great
Johnson and his team have worked on various possible ways to stop an asteroid in its track. One of the most obvious tactics would be to blow the giant asteroid up with some sort of sophisticated space missile with a massive nuclear payload. Once the missile hits its target, the space rock would disintegrate. But his analysis shows that this would only cause the asteroid to break into smaller pieces and rain down destruction on Earth. Then there’s the possibility of nuclear fallout, which is too great a risk.
They Could Push the Asteroid With Spacecrafts
Johnson theorized that unmanned spacecrafts could be sent into space to alter the course of the asteroid. These ships would strike at the asteroid at high speed. In theory, the kinetic impact would change the space rock’s trajectory away from the planet. This is by far the one scenario that has the highest chance of working. Of course, they could go with Hollywood’s idea, but Johnson isn’t very optimistic.
Hollywood’s Solution to a Large Asteroid
The 1998 film “Armageddon” dealt with the end of the world scenario that Johnson has been trying to avoid at all costs. In the movie, a massive asteroid is on a collision course for Earth and is projected to strike in 18 days. When that happens, all life will end. So NASA hires Harry Stamper, an oil driller played by Bruce Willis, to land on the asteroid, plant a nuclear bomb inside and detonate it before the asteroid reaches our atmosphere.
It’s a Last Resort
Johnson shook his head at the thought of doing what Bruce Willis’ character did in “Armageddon,” and has said more than once that this would not be a practical solution. But even though he would never consider planting a nuclear payload in an asteroid, NASA is still open to the possibility. Granted, it is not their first choice, but if all of the other options failed, this plan would certainly work as a last resort.
Landing on an Asteroid
Fortunately, there aren’t any asteroids around, at least for now. So how do astronauts practice landing on an asteroid? Simple. They simulate space conditions in an underwater environment and even offer training courses on how to deal with landing on top of an asteroid. Since no one has ever tried this for real, the simulation is just that... a simulation.
NASA also hopes that training astronauts for collecting samples on a simulated asteroid will prepare them to possibly plant a massive explosive on the surface of a real asteroid should the need arise.
Orbital Telescopes Are Always Watching
Meanwhile, as astronauts train on Earth for dealing with space rocks, Johnson and his team at NASA continue to use the project’s finances as well as resources, like massive orbital telescopes, to monitor the cosmos. These telescopes are humanity’s best early warning system in case a large asteroid enters our solar system and makes its way towards Earth. The sooner NASA is aware of the problem, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the threat.
It Takes Time to Prepare
One of the primary reasons why it’s important for NASA to get the heads up of an asteroid’s trajectory is time. Johnson and his team need months and in some cases years to implement several plans to keep the space rock away. In other words, they don’t have unmanned ships ready to alter the course of the asteroids or Bruce Willis on speed dial to mine a hole to plant a bomb on the asteroid. So, the longer they’re aware of the problem, the more likely they are of finding a solution that will work.
FEMA is Ready to Act
Johnson’s team isn’t ignorant of the possibility that any attempt they make may fail. To that end, they’ve collaborated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate and prepare for the effects, respond to, and recover from the potential aftermath of an asteroid collision. Working together, he’s hopeful that his team and FEMA will be able to get as many people out of harm’s way should the inevitable occur.
Global Organizations Joined His Cause
FEMA isn’t the only organization that John’s working with. In 2019, he gathered the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network to brainstorm different ways to handle a possible space rock collision. From his perspective, this threat was much bigger than just one nation. This was a global problem that needed to be tackled globally. Together, he felt confident that they would be able to come up with innovative solutions.
Humanity is Already Prepping
There are some people on Earth who are prepping for the possibility of an asteroid crashing on Earth. They are often referred to as doomsday preppers. Some of these "doomsdayers" have built underground bunkers with all the amenities from home, including food, water, plumbing, and a fresh supply of oxygen. However, Johnson reiterates that the likelihood of an asteroid destroying the Earth any time soon is slim, but if it does happen, he intends to make sure that it can never harm us.
Johnson Doesn’t Worry at Night
While a space rock is a threat that should not be taken lightly, Johnson and his team have been doing everything in their power to make sure that NASA and humanity in general are ready to face such a threat. So, while some might assume that his project is stressful, for him, it’s just another day at the office. And he certainly has no problem getting a good night’s rest.