The International Space Station orbits the Earth at more than 17,000 mph, lapping the planet every 90 minutes. That means there are 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day. It never got old.
Imagine orbital night: You are looking out the bay window, down at the dark world. When you’re over an unpopulated area like the ocean, which is most of the planet, you’re looking at nothingness—no lights, no stars, a hole in space.
Suddenly you see a clear silver line, Earth’s thin atmosphere, tracing the horizon. It quickly changes hue, from silver to blue to coral orange to yellow to a fiery orange to red. At the same time, you glimpse the station’s giant solar arrays glowing like the filaments in your toaster, hearkening the sun’s rise. And then that blinding gold ball emerges, painting the black planet in washes of white, green, and the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. By the time your heart catches up, you wish there was a way to freeze time.
Ninety minutes later the whole thing reverses—the terminator line creeps back, swallowing the Earth and all its color, the bright orb shrinking to a dot and then disappearing, leaving you, once again, dangling above the abyss.
Now when I see a sunset or sunrise down here on Earth, I feel intense longing. But I also take comfort in knowing there is always something more beautiful beyond what we can see. It gives me hope.
Our window to the cosmos is shrinking. Within the next century the global urban population is expected to octuple, which will only intensify light pollution and endanger our view of the night sky. David J. Lorenz, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Climatic Research, has illustrated this trend by mapping light pollution at darksitefinder.com. There’s good news yet: Dark refuges remain scattered throughout the country, where on a good night it’s still possible to gaze at the Milky Way. Click on the map to see a handful of our favorites.
In the beginning, there is nothing—a dark, empty stage and the deep rumble of synthesizers. Tiny, glittering orbs begin to dance across the backdrop, a swirl of cosmic dust. In the foreground, lights shoot across the body of a lonely, suspended acoustic guitar, itself a small screen, which suddenly awakens in a white glow as some invisible hand strums a single chord.
Instead of being played, it’s as if the guitar is beckoning to the player, who now comes onstage clad head-to-toe in white, sporting a shock of platinum hair and sunglasses. She sits on a velvet stool behind the guitar stand and lays her hands on the strings, uniting with the instrument. “It’s the creation story,” guitarist Kaki King explains later. “But who’s in control? I’m not in command of the instrument—I’m just a facilitator.”
The show, The Neck Is A Bridge to the Body, is King’s brainchild, but it’s also a collaboration with five visual artists and the Glowing Pictures production company—not to mention the fans who chipped in more than $43,000 on Kickstarter to help bring the project to fruition. “We learn that [the guitar] is a shape-shifter, it has traveled all over the world, it has a background with friends and family, and it even has a skeleton and a nervous system,” King wrote on her Kickstarter page. “Music creates the musician, and the guitar creates the guitarist.”
The performance continues, guitar and guitarist now awash in white flashes as King scratches and slaps the wooden body in a percussive song called “Thoughts Are Born.” The blasts of light intensify with the severity of the artist’s drumming, which accelerates to a gallop. The first color appears in the next track with the first actual note King plays, and from there the show grows in complexity—visuals and music journey from abstract shapes to actual cityscapes. “The guitar is talking,” she later says. “It’s narrating its own life story.”
King was 4 years old when her father, a lawyer who loved music, put a small guitar in her hands. Lessons followed, but she was no prodigy. It was also at an early age that her parents learned she had trouble with her eyesight. She was fitted with glasses at age 7, and the heavy plastic lenses only thickened with age.
Growing up almost legally blind, she never developed an interest in the visual world. Instead, she escaped into her music, learning by ear. After an adolescent dalliance with the drums, she returned to the six-string as a solo performer in college at NYU, playing at open mics and in subway stations and finally at a few smaller venues. Her percussive style, tapping and smacking the strings and body, along with her use of unique tunings, set her apart. She signed her first record deal in 2002 at age 23. Five years later, when Rolling Stone released its “New Guitar Gods” list, she was the only female and the youngest picked.
Soon thereafter, tired of having to call for housekeeping to help find her lost glasses on hotel floors, King had corrective eye surgery. It was as if she had been reborn.
“I didn’t look at anything until I was 28,” she says. “You don’t see with your eyes; you see with your brain. But now my brain was going to change with these new eyes.”
A vibrant world of shapes and colors revealed itself, and she looked to improve stage-lighting presentation at her shows. Eventually she stumbled onto projection mapping and realized that images could be cast onto not only the backdrop but also the guitar itself. The further she delved into the vortex, the more intertwined the music and video—sound and light—became. She discovered motion detectors and pressure sensors that she could use to alter the visuals in real time during the presentation. And she soon began to realize that her music was being influenced by what the artists put on screen. “It’s new for visuals to inspire me,” she says. “The music is almost a sound track to a companion piece.”
After the creation portion of the performance, King and her instrument lead the audience through a wild, bright, and sometimes dissonant ride through the guitar’s evolution. The finale is a song of peaceful reflection entitled “We Did Not Make The Instrument, The Instrument Made Us.” The sound of synthesizers hovers beneath her gentle fingerpicking as pastel purples, blues, and greens scribble, wash, and explode across the backdrop. The guitar seems to lose its shape, morphing and melting. An intense crescendo plummets into a trickle of notes. Then a final strum rings out as the screens go dark.
Hatsune Miku, the bright-eyed Japanese diva with turquoise pigtails who dances onstage before thousands of rabid, glow stick–wielding fans, is nothing more than a 3-D image cast onto a transparent screen by a series of high-powered projectors.
But she is also a figurative projection.
Miku was born in 2007 as a data bank of female vocal samples that could be programmed to sing homespun lyrics as part of Vocaloid, a personal recording software program not unlike GarageBand. Her only physical manifestation was the anime-style avatar on the box. But once thousands of fans started creating and sharing music in her “voice” online, the demand for merchandising exploded into art, figurines, and, in 2009, a holographic “live” show. Her creators at Sapporo, Japan–based Crypton Future Media gave her a limited persona: 16 years old, 158 centimeters tall, 42 kilograms in weight. The rest was left to the fans. “She is everybody,” says Kanae Muraki, Crypton’s general manager of U.S./E.U. development. “That’s the whole idea behind the movement.”
Thus far, the movement has produced 2.5 million Facebook fans, 170,000 YouTube videos, and a catalog of more than 100,000 fan-written songs from which Miku’s crew picks the set lists for her shows. Miku has opened for Lady Gaga, collaborated with Pharrell, and performed on the Late Show with David Letterman. This April, she will embark on another U.S. tour—and she’s still just 16.
But is she real?
“We’re at concerts, backstage, but Miku’s dressing room is empty,” says Riki Tsuji, a Crypton assistant director. “A concert is not 100 percent about what’s happening on stage; it’s about the energy of the people around you. But having that projection brings the whole thing closer to a typical concert experience. Without it, she’s just a disembodied voice.
Omar Hurricane spent 15 years of his life designing warheads.
As a physicist studying nuclear fusion, that was only natural. Fusion research essentially began as a byproduct of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
But in 2012 the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located in the Bay Area, recruited Hurricane for a different kind of project: Using lasers to achieve controlled fusion, a nuclear reaction that, if contained, could generate enough clean, renewable energy to power the globe. “It was exciting,” says Hurricane. “I wanted to be part of something that was potentially beneficial for humanity.”
Physicists have been trying to harness fusion (a high-speed collision of two atomic nuclei that produces power) as a civil salve since its initial role as a potentially world-killing Cold War weapon. Lasers entered the sustainable-fusion picture in the 1970s. But progress was a slog, even after construction of the National Ignition Facility was completed in 2009. This behemoth, $3.5 billion laser consists of 192 beams of light that stretch more than 4,900 feet and produce 500 trillion watts.
Hurricane’s crew of researchers brought all of that to bear on a pencil eraser–size cylinder containing a 2-millimeter dot of hydrogen fuel. The problem, according to Hurricane, was that the dot kept changing shape and squirting out under the intense pressure, like a water balloon being clenched in your hand.
The lab’s solution was to reduce the laser’s force of compression, stabilizing the fuel so that the ball could be squeezed evenly. Finally, they managed to turn two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom, a reaction that produced more energy than was put in.
A significant breakthrough, to be sure, but Hurricane says we are still decades away from seeing fusion power on the grid. After all, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.
Trace the history of profound accidents and ingenious experiments that dramatically amended our understanding of light, with Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke, co-authors of Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond.
The countdown is on, and tension is mounting in Building 29 of the Goddard Space Flight Center. On the cavernous clean-room floor where technicians are assembling the machine’s 21-foot, gold-coated mirror, in the simulators where the engineers test its spectrograph at sub-imaginable temperatures, and in the upstairs offices where scientists and project managers sweat over the data, there is a heightened sense of urgency as launch date approaches: T-minus two years and 10 months.
That may sound like an eternity to most people, but to the 1,000-member crew behind the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s crunch time. “It’s not a marathon anymore,” says Paul Geithner, mission system engineer and deputy project manager for “Webb.” “It’s an endless series of 100-meter dashes.”
For Geithner and his team, it’s a time of frantic fine-tuning—testing and retesting each screw, bolt, and computer board on one of the biggest and most complicated machines ever put into space. In NASA shorthand, the team of engineers will “bake ’em, shake ’em, and try to break ’em,” to be sure the parts can withstand the jolt of launch, the searing rays of the sun, the extreme cold of space. After all, these pieces didn’t come off the shelf. Most of the programs, systems, parts, and even materials (actual super-lightweight carbon composites) were designed specifically for this mission. To an extent, Geithner and his team are already in uncharted territory.
There are no excuses. Come October 2018, when Webb is perched atop a rocket and propelled from French Guiana into orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth, everything has to work perfectly. All that’s at stake is public scrutiny, professional reputation, an $8 billion taxpayer price tag, and, possibly, the answer to the central question of human existence. Webb’s primary mission: To look back through time, more than 13 billion years, to glimpse the first luminous objects that formed after the Big Bang. To determine how the earliest galaxies were born. In essence, to find out where we come from.
The question of our origin, or at least a form of it, has rocket-fueled the imaginations and career aspirations of many scientists and engineers who now flash their NASA photo ID badges at the guard station of Goddard’s 1,270-acre Greenbelt, Maryland, campus. Paul Geithner is no exception.
The January morning sun streams through the windows of his office onto a dusty bookshelf where Geithner has chronologically displayed models of NASA rockets, all built to 1:200 scale. Each is bigger than the last, starting with a replica of Alan Shepard’s Redstone, little bigger than a pencil. Next is John Glenn’s Sharpie-size Atlas, and so on, all the way up to Saturn V, with the bulk of a baton. “I built these when I was 6 or 7,” says Geithner, now 53.
Geithner is at the tail end of the generation of born-again dreamers who were baptized by Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. The fuzzy images coming through the little black-and-white TV in his parents’ bedroom called Geithner to the stars. He got his first telescope for Christmas when he was 7, and he’s owned one ever since. “I love looking up at the night sky,” he says, his youthful grin framed by ears that protrude like solar arrays. “I’d follow the planets. I’d look up at the moon and think, Maybe I’ll get to walk there someday.” He joined the Air Force after getting an engineering degree at Virginia Tech, but allergies kept him out of the cockpit. Instead he started working on satellite technology and eventually found his way to NASA, which hired him to help fix the Hubble Space Telescope.
Today, Hubble is revered as our gateway to the cosmos, beaming back dazzling images of black holes, supernovas, and stars forming in dense nebulae, as well as enabling discoveries such as a more precise rate of the universe’s expansion. But Hubble was originally synonymous with snafu—scientists discovered a problem with its optics a few weeks after its 1990 launch. Geithner was part of a crew brought in to troubleshoot and help orchestrate a spacewalk to repair a microscopic imperfection in Hubble’s main mirror.
It was just after the more routine second servicing mission to Hubble was completed that NASA approached Geithner about another project—a new space telescope that, in terms of size, scale, technology, and mission, would make Hubble seem like a View-Master.
The core of Building 29 is the four-story High Bay Clean Room. Totaling 1.3 million cubic feet with a 9,000-square-foot wall of sophisticated air filters, it is considered the largest clean room in the world. Technicians clad from head to toe in protective white coveralls (dubbed “bunny suits”) are working 10-hour shifts, painstakingly piecing together Webb’s primary mirror, which consists of 18 hexagonal, gold-coated beryllium segments. They’ve just installed piece 16, but the going is slow. As NASA learned with Hubble, the smallest error—a smudge, bump, or speck of dust—could prove disastrous.
Hubble was still being prepped in this room in the late 1980s when a NASA committee started dreaming up its next big project. By 1995, even as the newly repaired Hubble was beaming back startling starscapes, the telescope was showing its creators the limits of what it could do. “We thought we’d be able to see the first luminous objects, but they were too far away, too far back in time,” says John Mather, Webb’s project scientist, whose early work to confirm the Big Bang Theory earned him the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics. Because the universe is expanding, Mather explains, the light emitted by those original stars is now too stretched out and too red to be visible to Hubble’s ultraviolet-detecting equipment. So in 1996 NASA decided to build a new space telescope with infrared capabilities.
Initially called the Next Generation Space Telescope but renamed in 2002 after James Webb, NASA’s second administrator, Webb was to be Hubble’s superior in nearly every way. Hubble is roughly the size of a tractor-trailer. Webb’s sunshield alone is the size of a tennis court—larger in diameter than any rocket—so it will have to be folded into a capsule for launch and then opened like a flower when in space, a blooming that will take 14 days. While Hubble’s orbit is a mere 350 miles from Earth’s surface, Webb will squat nearly 1 million miles away, more than four times the distance between Earth and the moon—a journey that will take roughly 30 days, too far out of reach for any modern-day service and repair mission.
And yet, from that vantage, with its massive sunshield to keep the instruments cool, Webb will be able to detect wavelengths of up to 28 micrometers (Hubble can only see 2.5 micrometers), light that has been traveling across the universe for billions of years. In effect, Webb will enable us to see further back in time than ever before.
Everything we see is in the past. Look at the people around you; you’re seeing them as they were a fraction of a second ago. When you look out the window, you’re seeing the sun as it was more than eight minutes ago. And when you peer up at the night sky, you’re witnessing starlight that has traveled years, perhaps decades, to get here. Light takes time to travel, and Webb will be trying to capture the light that left the oldest stars and galaxies more than 13 billion years ago.
Satellites are able to detect the heat signature of the Big Bang about 380,000 years after it happened. But the universe at that time was dark—no stars had yet formed. Currently, Hubble can see far enough back to observe what NASA terms “toddler galaxies.” Webb, on the other hand, is designed to gaze upon the infants—new galaxies that are still moving away as the universe expands, stretching their light waves from the visible and ultraviolet into the red end of the spectrum.
A mission this broad and ambitious—investigating the very origins of the universe—automatically stimulates the imagination. The dreamer and philosopher in each of us gets swept up in the possibilities. The unknown. But Webb isn’t simply an instrument of curiosity. Even the most creative scientists and engineers at NASA have pragmatic expectations. They want to observe the first stars—the first light—which they theorize were 1,000 times bigger than the sun and much brighter before the celestial bodies exploded into supernovas massive enough to still be detectable. From those violent explosions, Webb might be able to identify how galaxies formed and evolved—how they are shaped, how elements are created and distributed, how stars are created. These answers might not only suggest how our own galaxy and planet came into being but could also give us hints about what to look for when searching for other galaxies and planets that can sustain life.
By telling us where we come from, Webb might be able to show us where we can go.
While Webb is readied to delve into our distant past, Geithner and his team are focused squarely on the immediate future, trying to anticipate anything that could go wrong. They’re currently wrapping up the second cryogenic tests, in which Webb’s instrument box (containing the cameras and spectrometers) was placed in a 60-foot kettle-like vacuum chamber and cooled to minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, warmed back up, taken apart, reassembled, and put back into the deep freeze. “Things shrink when they get cold,” Geithner says. “We want to make sure it doesn’t break itself as it cools down.”
Once everything checks out, the instrument box will be re-reassembled, attached to the mirror, and trucked to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where there is a cryo-testing facility big enough to house the entire telescope. Then it’s on to Redondo Beach, California, where the telescope will join the sunshield and spacecraft before being loaded onto a barge (Webb’s total weight, more than 7 tons, would be too much for several bridges en route) and shipped through the Panama Canal to French Guiana for its launch 1 million miles into space. Anything goes wrong on that journey and it’s $8.8 billion sucked out of the air lock.
“Nobody dwells on the fear,” Geithner says. “You do everything you can to ensure success. Test the heck out of stuff. But it’s not risk-free. To have worked on something for most of your career and to think there’s a small chance that the rocket will blow up, something bad happens in deployment, or it doesn’t work—that’s always just below the surface. It comes with the territory.”
The risk may frame Geithner’s team’s engineering, but it’s the potential reward that drives them forward. Webb’s mission is multifaceted. In addition to learning more about the oldest objects in the universe, NASA also wants to get a second and deeper look at the objects Hubble has spotted, such as nebulae and other planets outside our solar system. But as Geithner sits in his Goddard office, he occasionally looks to the book shelf by the window, where a glass case contains the newest model in his collection: a mock-up of Webb, sunshield unfurled and gleaming in the morning sun. Watching Geithner excitedly show off his new toy, it isn’t hard to imagine the wonderment of a child staring up at the stars. “Hubble’s greatest accomplishments were answers to questions we didn’t even know we had,” he says. “My greatest hope is that Webb will make discoveries that we can’t even imagine right now.”
It is a life-giving force and a universal source of meaning. The sun’s rays, our original light, provide warmth,food, and oxygen. So it was natural that the sun became our first deity, and light remains a dominant metaphor in the sacred texts of every major religion.
But it is also a wellspring of beauty. Those waves, those oscillating electric and magnetic fields, give us color, texture, and shape.
From the beginning, its harnessing yielded radical revolutions in the human experience. Fire enabled us to conquer the danger of night, but it also created a place to gather, to tell stories, to plan for what lay ahead. In many ways, it made us more human. Today, it remains a catalyst for social interaction: Soft lights are used to set the mood; flashing lights warn us to be alert; a porch light welcomes us home.
And innovations in light continue to upend our presumptions and transform the way we live, with new insights generated using microscopes, telescopes, X-rays, and lasers.Yet much is still to change. Meet the artists, scientists, pop music fans, and urban planners who are reshaping the meaning of light.