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The ISS and Effects of the Theory of Relativity

This work is part of a class at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. The project engages in understanding and connecting data and finally visualising it. The only condition was to connect a dataset of free choice with the International Space Station (ISS) API from It provides the current location of the ISS, the overhead pass prediction and the number of people in space, including their names.

Idea generation

The first idea followed the interest on creating physical visualisations. The plan was to create a collar with inbuilt taser that shocks every time the ISS is above the current location.

The following idea was a little less martial, but still used the position of the ISS and made it possible to experience that position in the physical world. The visualisation was to make a signal if the ISS was at the same position to the observer as the sun. To realise this idea mathematical knowledge and any references about the feasibility were lacking.

The finally realised idea deals with information from the movie Interstellar, that time in space may run differently than on earth. From that a genuine interest arose, whether the current crew members of the ISS, like the characters in the movie, experience time differently depending on where in the universe they are.


These loose thoughts substantiated with mathematical formulas and explanations from Robert Frost, trained ISS astronaut and instructor and flight controller at NASA, that are summarised here here. The effects of the relativity indeed influence time differently on the ISS and on earth. Though much less spectacular than expected. Only over long periods of time the difference would add up to an approximately imaginable effect. In this table information about astronauts flights and the total time they spent in space can be consulted. After inserting the time, the current crew members have spent on the ISS so far, into the formulas of the theory of relativity, a new problem emerged. On the one hand the time, astronauts on the ISS are saving, compared to terrestrials and due to the effects of relativity, are within centiseconds. On the other hand the time they have to spend on the ISS to achieve such difference is more than 300.000.000 times more. The resulting question was how to visualise this proportion for every crew member, make the time difference imaginable and explain the effects of the theory of relativity at the same time.

The solution should be a printed illustration. Everything was build in Adobe Photoshop, the .psd file has been uploaded to the repository. After a short introduction to the topic, general and special relativity should be explained in their essence and the extend of time saving has to be illustrated and associated with the current crew members.


The special relativity is determined by the movement of an object relatively to another object. This is illustrated through an arrow that traces a flight path. The general relativity is especially determined by differing gravity at different places of the universe. Many arrows suggest a “weight” of the text block and illustrate the idea of gravity. On the basis of the russian Kononenko, who spent the most time on the ISS, the extend of the saved respectively less-lived time can be experienced exemplarily. Kononenko has spent 75.900.660 seconds on the ISS and therefor he has lived 0.0232 seconds less that people who stayed on earth. To put that period of time across, the illustration contains two allegories. The first refers to the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt. He managed to run 24 centimetre in 0.0232 seconds. For that reason the illustration has been printed in 24 centimetres width. The second example points out the shortness of 0.0232 seconds even more. Because one of the fastest periods of time we experience in our everyday lives is a blink of the eye. 0.0232 seconds is not even enough time to blink, though. A blink of the eye lasts about 0.3 seconds and therefore almost 13 times more than the time that Kononenko lived less. The illustration makes this clearer by showing the proportions. In 0.0232 seconds the eye can close to about a sixth before closing entirely and reopening again. In the illustration the suggested earth and ozone layer become border and lid of the eye.

Finally at the bottom of the illustration is completed by a table of the time the current crew members have spent on the ISS and the time they saved as a result.


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