15 Out-of-This-World Facts About the International Space Station

NASA
NASA

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight to assemble the International Space Station. Let’s celebrate 16 years of the ISS with 15 things you may not have known about the world’s shared space station. 

1. Sixteen nations were involved in the construction of the ISS: The United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.  

2. Sixty-five miles per hour may be a pretty standard speed limit on highways here on Earth, but up in orbit, the ISS travels a whopping 5 miles-per-second. That means the station circles the entire planet once every 90 minutes.  

3. You may think your house or apartment is spacious, but it’s got nothing on the ISS. At about 357.6 feet (or 109 meters) long, the International Space Station gives astronauts plenty of room to stretch out.  

4. Made up of hundreds of major and minor components, the ISS is the largest manned object ever put into space. The ISS has a pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, the same as a Boeing 747. It's four times larger than the Russian space station MIR and five times larger than the U.S. station Skylab. 

5. The ISS is the single most expensive object ever built. The cost of the ISS has been estimated at over $120 billion.

6.  There are only two bathrooms on the entire station. The urine of both the crewmembers and laboratory animals is filtered back into the station’s drinking water supply, so at least the astronauts will never get thirsty. 

7. Just because you’re in space doesn’t mean you can’t get a virus on your computer. The 52 computers onboard the ISS have been infected by viruses more than once. The first was a worm known as the W32.Gammima.AG, which started spreading by stealing passwords to online video games on Earth. It wasn’t a big deal, though—NASA responded by calling the virus a “nuisance.” 

8. The ISS is a veritable hub of space traffic. In June of 2014, four separate international spacecraft were docked there, including the Progress M-21M cargo spacecraft, which departed the station on June 9 after a six-month mission to drop off food, fuel, and supplies. In September, a resupply mission from SpaceX visited the station, and an entire new crew arrived that month as well. The station’s full flight schedule has docking events planned through the summer of 2016.

9. The ISS is probably one of the only places you can actually smell space. A former ISS astronaut has described how a “metallic-ionization-type smell” occurs in the area where the pressure between the station and other docking crafts is equalized.   

10. Currently, the ISS is the third brightest object in the night sky after the moon and Venus. Eagle-eyed stargazers can even spot it if they look closely enough—it looks like a fast-moving airplane. If you can’t find it, NASA has a service called Spot the Station that texts you when and where it will pass over your location. If you want the opposite view (though we’re pretty sure you won’t be able to spot yourself), there is a live video feed pointing towards Earth that runs when the crew is off-duty.

11. Though the plan is to de-orbit the ISS in 2024, the oldest module of the station—the Russian-built and American-financed component called “Zarya,” first launched in 1998—can function until 2028 (as will The Unity, the first entirely American ISS component, which was also launched that year). Once the ISS kicks the bucket, the Russians plan to add their leftover modules to their new station, OPSEK (or Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex). 

12. Because the human body tends to lose muscle and bone mass in zero gravity environments, all astronauts aboard the ISS must work out at least two hours a day to maintain normal Earth-based bodily health.  

13. The electrical systems on the ISS include 8 miles of wire. That’s longer than the entire perimeter of New York City's Central Park.

14. Astronauts eat three square meals a day on the ISS, but when they sit down for a meal, they don’t sit down at all. There are no chairs around the main eating area. Instead, the astronauts simply stabilize themselves and float. Diners have to be very slow and careful when bringing food to their mouths so it doesn't accidentally float across the station. Also, they can’t just stroll over to the refrigerator and grab a snack—all the food is canned, dehydrated, or packaged so it doesn’t require refrigeration.  

15.  Oxygen in the ISS comes from a process called “electrolysis,” which involves using an electrical current generated from the station’s solar panels to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. 

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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