Oregon State alum (’78) Don Pettit is a NASA astronaut and a veteran of multiple space missions, including a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station. During that trip, Pettit captured thousands of images from space – some of which he’s made into time-lapse videos that show phenomenon like the aurora borealis over northern Canada, and some that show the sun rising and falling over the Earth. We posted the videos on YouTube, and since then they’ve been picked up by Wired magazine and viewed by hundreds of thousands.

We recently had a chance to talk with Pettit about why he thought it was important to make videos from space, and some of the things in space that surprise him.

When did you make the videos, and what gave you the idea to do it?
I did the imagery on STS 126 (a Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station), which would have been November/December 2008.

There are things that happen on the period of an orbital time scale, which is 90 minutes, which you can’t really perceive with your eye. It’s kind of like watching the minute hand on a clock move. You really can’t see the dynamics of it.

What kinds of things can’t you perceive with your eye?
One is the movement of the station’s solar panels. They make one motion every 90 minutes, one complete revolution. You look out the window and they’re there. Then you get busy doing something and look out the window again, and they moved. But you’re really not aware of the motion.

What is the purpose of the solar panels?
They produce a solar energy for the space station. So they track the sun as we go around earth. We have radiators that get rid of waste heat, and those have to be pointed away from the sun.

Did you end up perceiving things differently as you put these movies together?
Yeah, I did. If you look at some of the videos closely you could see meteorites coming in. They’re just flashes that show up on a few frames. There are other little surprises that come out when you do these time-lapse videos.

Why do you think it’s important that people see something like this?
When I go and give a talk to a group of people, one of the more common questions is, ‘so tell me, what was it really like?’ These images give people on earth a close approximation to what it is really like when you look out a window. Particularly the nighttime Aurora and some of the other nighttime time-lapse work.

Part of it is sharing the experience with the people who make it all possible, because this is a publicly funded program. And part of it is to share these images with other technical and scientific people so they can see things in these images either that I don’t see or that I can’t explain. And maybe they can make a discovery from the raw data that I’ve collected.

What are some of the things that go through your mind when you see things like a nighttime aurora?
I actually wrote an essay about this when I was on the Space Station during Expedition 6 in 2002/2003, and it’s posted on the NASA website.

Basically I wrote that if the Greeks and the Romans had seen Aurora they would have named a goddess after her, and Aurora would have been the twin sister of Isis, who is the god of the rainbow. I made the analogy between other striking and beautiful phenomenology that have gods named after them. I said we should have a god named after Aurora, because it is certainly fitting.


What kind of equipment did you use to make the videos?
A normal video camera isn’t sensitive enough. So I used one of our low-light level still cameras. I put it on a framing rate where it would take a picture every 10-15 seconds. I’d get a series of thousands of images. Of the 12,000 images I was able to make 85 separate time-lapse movies. So it’s laborious. You have thousands and thousands of individual images that you have to import into editing software and put together into a time-lapse movie.

Is there anything else you want to add?
I do love the concept of a frontier. I like to describe a frontier as a place where your normal intuition does not apply. The answers are not in the back of the book. These are places that are rich in discovery, and these can be all over the place. You could be going to the bottom of the ocean, off to the Antarctic or Arctic regions. Space happens to be my frontier. All you have to do is open your eyes and you can make all these neat observations.

How is what you saw different than what your intuition would tell you?
Your intuition has no idea what Earth looks like when you’re not on Earth, because you’ve never been there before – and being in a weightless environment, and flying around the room like Peter Pan. And when you have 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets a day. And sunrise takes 7.5 seconds. So you go from pitch black to bright, full sun in 7.5 seconds. And then the inverse goes. These are all things that are counter to your intuition.