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The Amazon Fires, From an Extraterrestrial Perspective

8 minute read

A version of this first appeared as the TIME Space newsletter sent on Aug. 30.

Space is aspirational. Merely the act of looking through a telescope is an exercise in questing. It’s vast, exciting, and gorgeous out there. Even scenes of cataclysm—a supernova, a Jovian cyclone—can be beautiful from so safe a remove as Earth.

Orbiting telescopes like Hubble or Spitzer or Kepler also have the luxury of avoiding the sometimes-dispiriting business of looking down at Earth. Never has that seemed like more of a good idea than this summer, when, to look back at the surface of the planet rolling by below is to look at a hellscape—with wildfires in western Africa, Siberia, and especially the Amazon, where the massive, living, breathing rainforest has been put to the torch.

The numbers are hideous: more than 57,500 fires have been set in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon in 2019; nearly 7,200 sq. mi. (18,700 sq. km.) of forest are currently burning, larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island; another 2,800 sq. mi. (7,250 sq. km) or so have been put to the torch in neighboring Bolivia. And all of these blazes endanger the nearly 1 million indigenous people spread across 305 tribes who call the rainforest home.

It is, by now, a shopworn metaphor to call the Amazon the lungs of the planet, but it is no less true for the familiarity. The jungle provides only 6% of the planet’s oxygen, which is an important but not critical share. More important is the Amazon’s function as a carbon sink—a place that absorbs and stores 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 5% of humanity’s annual emissions.

But the lungs are choking on smoke—the Earth has gone emphysemic—and the leaders most in a position to fix things are adding tinder to the flames. Brazilian’s populist President Jair Bolsonaro, has dismissed news of the fires as “hysterical,” “misleading” and “sensationalist.” Ricardo Salles, the country’s Minister of the Environment, blames natural factors—“dry weather, wind and heat”—for the tragedy. The main cause, of course, is what it almost always is when the Amazon burns: fires deliberately set by farmers and ranchers, and countenanced with a wink by the government, to clear land for grazing and planting.

President Trump has been a no-show on the issue—both figuratively and literally, skipping a climate meeting during the recent G7 summit. Trump later announced that he was backing Bolsonaro’s decision to refuse the $20 million the G7 offered to help fight the fires. The Brazilian president will not accept the cash until French President Emmanuel Macron apologizes for a public spat the two are having that was exacerbated in no small part by Bolsonaro using social media to make fun of the appearance of Macron’s wife.

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Really. That’s happening. And meantime the planet burns.

In the midst of the crisis, NASA is doing what NASA does, devoting its orbiting resources to tracking the fires and reporting their source and direction. Multiple parts of the space agency’s Earth Observing System (EOS), especially the Terra and Aqua satellites, are returning stark images of the devastation below. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are tracking the fires too, sending back images of white smoke from the burning jungle streaming east over the Atlantic—pictures that would be beautiful if their implications weren’t so ugly.

Perhaps the most poignant voice in the season of fire belonged neither to a political leader nor a scientist, but a satirist: Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post. Her lacerating Aug. 22 column, which featured a picture of the blue-and-white Earth rising over the gray lunar surface was headlined, “Moon Can’t Bear Watching Earth Do This to Itself.”

“At first it was small things. Losing a species here or there. Just careless, really. These things happen to a planet on its way up,” says the moon of Petri’s imaginings. “This is so sad,” the moon goes on. “I hate watching. I wouldn’t if I weren’t tidally locked.”

But the moon is tidally locked; it can’t turn away. Regrettably, we can—and too often we do. So the fires burn and the air goes foul and the Earth heats up and we don’t act. And our satellites, watching it all, keep a record of our folly.


This image of Messier 101, also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from Spitzer and three other NASA space telescopes.NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC

Happy Birthday, Spitzer

If you’d spent the last 16 years circling the sun in an Earth-trailing orbit, you’d have some pretty cool pictures to show for it. And if you were equipped with eyes that could see in the infrared, things would be cooler still. That describes NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope which just turned 16. In its honor, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a sampling of 16 of its greatest pictures. Infrared helix? The tortured clouds of Eta Carinae? Spectacular sombrero? They’re all here.


Starhopper Flies

SpaceX plans to reach the moon sometime in 2023, with founder Elon Musk already having sold a handful of seats to Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa for a circumlunar trip sometime that year. The trip will be about a quarter million miles (about 400,000 km) out and a quarter million back, and last week, SpaceX covered a tiny piece of that distance—about 500 ft. (150 meters)—with a 54-second test flight of its new raptor engine, powering a little ship dubbed Starhopper. It wasn’t much of a journey, but it proved the mettle of the engine and provided some dramatic video. As always, SpaceX knows how to build machines that also put on a show.

Uh, Pluto? Can we get back together?

It’s been 13 years since that great space diss, when Earthly astronomers busted Pluto down to a dwarf planet, stripping it of the full planetary distinction it had enjoyed since amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. Some damn fools like, well, me, applauded the decision. But fools can learn and ideas can change, and when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015, revealing it to be an improbably complex and dynamic place, there were a lot of second thoughts. On Aug. 23, no less an authority than NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine climbed back aboard the Pluto train. “Just so you know,” he said during a robotics event for high school students in Denver, “in my view, Pluto is a planet, and you can write that the NASA administrator declared Pluto a planet once again.” Good enough for me!

It’s India’s moon—at least next month

While the U.S. and China and private companies SpaceX and Blue Origin vie for primacy in the race to return astronauts to the moon, don’t forget India. No, the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) isn’t flying astronauts yet, but it does have a robot probe preparing to set down in the moon’s south pole on Sept. 6. The spacecraft, known as Chandrayaan 2 is, as its name suggests, the second of India’s moon probes, the first of which went into lunar orbit in 2008. Chandrayaan 2 has been circling the moon since Aug. 19, and if the lander portion of the ship succeeds, it will make India only the fourth nation—after the U.S., the old USSR and China—to score a soft lunar landing. Already the mission is producing results, sending back brilliantly crisp images of the lunar wasteland.

We’re waiting, Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson is in year who-knows-what of promising to begin space flights that are really, truly, honest-to-goodness just around the corner. Now, in one more exercise in putting the horse before the cart, buying the furniture before you’ve got the house, building the frame before you’ve painted the picture—you see where this is going—Virgin Galactic has unveiled all the details of its snazzy new spaceport in New Mexico, including the menu of seared tuna and caviar its wannabe astronauts will be served when they arrive. But as for when flights will actually begin? Um, please check the departure board for updates. Bloomberg has a good read on the latest.

And about those fires:

It’s easy to understand the scale of the fires consuming the Amazon, but harder to grasp the mix of dysfunctional politics, economics and history that have brought us to this disastrous pass. Time’s Zoe Sullivan has a deep dive into the all of that in her piece “The Real Reason the Amazon is On Fire.”

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com