In a Twitter update posted by European Space Agency astronaut Alex Gerst, who is currently serving as flight engineer on the International Space Station, the conflict in Gaza and Israel has taken an orbital twist.
Along with a nighttime photograph of the Middle Eastern region, Gerst described it as his “saddest photo yet,” pointing out that he could “actually see explosions and rockets flying over Gaza and Israel.”
The photograph clearly shows street and city lights of Haifa (far right) and Tel-Aviv (near-center) hugging the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, as the Gaza Strip continues along the coast to the far left of the photo. It’s not clear if Gerst is referring to explosions and rocket trails captured in-shot, or whether it was a general observation of the nighttime region from his vantage point 200 miles overhead, but it is a sad reminder that signs of human conflict and suffering are easily visible from the space station.
The space station orbits the globe between the latitudes of 52 degrees North and 52 degrees South, so its only a matter of time before the occupants of the outpost see regions at war.
This fact was dramatically highlighted in 2008 when cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko took photos of the South Ossetia region shortly after Russian forces invaded Georgia. Officially, the photography campaign was described as an effort to monitor the “after-effects of border conflict operations in the Caucasus,” according to a NASA space station update. But critics argued that high-definition photography of a war zone could be used for strategic gain.
This would be especially troublesome for any of the ISS member nations as the outpost can only be used for peaceful purposes and any other use would violate the Jan. 29, 1998, ISS cooperation agreement, which states: “The Space Station together with its additions of evolutionary capability will remain a civil station, and its operation and utilization will be for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.” (Article 14)
The space station’s vantage point has had access to many scenes of conflict since its permanent habitation began in 2000 — including the terror attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 — a constant reminder that although, as a species, we can often put aside religious differences, political ideals and conflict while exploring space, on Earth, our old violent habits burn on.