Oceanography from orbit: an astronaut’s perspective

14 February 2014

It's the dream job of many children, whose vast imaginations make a career in space as attainable as a career on Earth, but becoming an astronaut is one giant leap too far for all but a select few.  So how did the first Australian in space, Dr Paul Scully-Power, go from floating on the ocean in the Navy to floating in zero gravity?

"It was easy," says Scully-Power, who orbited the Earth 133 times on the Challenger space shuttle in 1984.

"I have always been interested in the oceans, starting from my surfing past," says the Sydney born astronaut, who set up the first oceanographic group in the Royal Australian Navy.

"The Royal Australian Navy sent me on exchange to the US Navy. I was the first foreign investigator on a NASA program utilising an infrared satellite, and the first to use infrared to look at the oceans. When in the US, I got involved with the manned space program to look at the oceans from Skylab."

Soon, Scully-Power found himself floating hundreds of kilometres above the Earth, getting an astronaut's eye view of ocean eddies - whirlpools of water in the ocean which can be hundreds of kilometres across.

"The classical eddies are circular, for example the Gulf Stream and the East Australian Current, but we also found much smaller spiral eddies were rather ubiquitous in the oceans. Understanding how these eddies work is important as the ocean is the key to long term weather because it's a heat reservoir."

In addition to spending his time looking out the shuttle window to the ocean, the view of a couple of other sites on Earth have stuck with Scully-Powers nearly thirty years later.

"It is sometimes difficult to distinguish one country from another from space - where are the boundaries that you see on maps? However Iran and Australia are standouts; Iran because of the folded mountains, and Australia for the colour, a deep ochre. Albert Namatjira was right!"

Today, Dr Scully-Power has moved into private industry but maintains his astronaut's perspective, using remote space-based sensors to analyse what is happening on Earth.

"These sensors have improved over the years. The latest weather satellites being developed have 16 bands of infrared, so they can slice the atmosphere to get measurements at different altitudes. I have also 'branched out' and am involved in cybersecurity and nanotechnology."

Dr Scully-Power spoke at ANU at a sold out event last night, hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics with support from ANU, the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Mars Society of Australia.