Miseducation: The Adequate Wall of China

Iberian Peninsula from the International Space Station

Iberian Peninsula from the International Space Station

‘Miseducation’ is a series intended to correct falsities that are often mistaken for common knowledge. Tips provided are discouraged from being raised to maliciously correct teachers. Furthermore, OPT does not condone acts of know-it-allism.

Even on the brink of the final frontier, it is in human nature to look back on where you have been. This tendency is likely what has raised to fame the claim that the Great Wall of China is such a monumental structure, it can be seen all the way from space. Supposedly, a viewer still within the radius of Earth’s orbit would be able to view such gargantuan infrastructure, even without magnification from binoculars or a zoom lens. It is even considered to be the only man-made structure visible from such a distance. This assumption is outrageously false, as it would instead take upwards of 17,000 times normal human visual strength. While this is conclusive, the question of whether the Great Wall can be seen from closer reaches of space remains.

Like the beginning of every scientific question, we must conceptualize our terms with operational definitions. International aeronautical authorities agree that Earth ends and space begins at the Kármán line, marking the edge of space at 62 miles above sea level. However, a more practical definition of space visibility would be from the window of the International Space Station, orbiting at roughly 245 miles up, where one could take the time to get a good look at the view. This incongruity of perspective demonstrates the importance of operational definitions, as visibility of the Wall fades out at roughly 180 miles above sea level.

So while the moon is a stretch, the myth of the Great Wall is not a total fraud. However, visibility of the monument is dependent on weather and lighting conditions, which more often than not obscure its view. Not only can it only be viewed under virtually perfect conditions, it also depends on the space traveler. Some astronauts describe the Wall as hardly visible, whereas others cannot spot the Wall at all, given that it is not particularly wide nor does its color clash with landscape.

Although there is limited truth to the Great Wall’s space visibility, the common notion that it is the sole man-made feature with a heavenly view is totally false. The most common example would be larger highways, which outspan the Wall and are more identifiable because they are straighter and more off-color. While individual buildings are hard to spot, clusters of infrastructure can easily be recognized from the International Space Station. Densely urbanized cities are discernible from vast rural areas, where the most to be seen from space would be the occasional dam. Whereas interstellar lighting plays a key role in visibility of the Wall, nighttime may actually heighten visibility of highways and cities from space, as they become flooded with powerful electric lights that illuminate the structures.

Construction of the Great Wall of China was started in the seventh century B.C. as strategic military fortification from foreign invaders. But in a grander view, its majesty pales in comparison to the structural advances invented for the betterment of humankind, such as electricity, irrigation, and even roads. City lights, river dams, and interstate highways were built with noble intent, leading to widespread use. Because of this, their omnipresence towers over the Great Wall in the context of a bigger picture. Granted, the Great Wall of China is certainly a better vacation spot than a desert highway, but an astronaut – returning home after years of looking at the world luminous and ribboned with highways – might disagree.

Is China’s Great Wall Visible from Space? – Mara Hvistendahl – Scientific American

Iberian Peninsula at Night – Earth Observatory – NASA

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