from the world's big
These are the world’s longest straight lines
Researchers use algorithms to find the longest straight-line distances on land and at sea
- What links a small town in Portugal and a huge port city in China?
- The answer may surprise even inhabitants of both places: the world's longest straight line over land
- That line and its maritime equivalent were determined not by exploration but by calculation
What connects the Chinese port of Quanzhou with Sagres, a tiny parish in southern Portugal? No, it's not the New Silk Route, the Sino-European rail link inaugurated in 2017 (1). The answer is so arcane that it will surprise most inhabitants of either place: they are the extreme points of the world's longest straight line over land (2).
Following the course of that line would require directional rectitude of the highest degree. Travellers would have to forgo the relative comfort of well-worn roads and mountain passes and traverse daunting peaks and inhospitable deserts – not to mention innumerable private houses and public buildings.
Longest sailable straight line on Earth, as suggested by Reddit user kepleronlyknows.
They would cross 15 countries; skirting Madrid and Switzerland's alpine highlands; cutting off a corner of Austria and passing just north of Auschwitz in Poland; barely touching Ukraine and slicing through Belarus; travelling through Russia and Kazakhstan before hitting China and reaching the Formosa Strait; but not before dipping into Mongolia twice.
Because the globe is round and this map is not, the world's longest straight line over land – like all others long enough – looks like a bendy one on this image. For anyone walking the line, though, it would have been straight as a ruler, and, at the end of that trip, close to 20,000 miles long.
Threading the needle
Algorithmically correct: the world's longest sailable straight line goes from Pakistan to Kamchatka
Image: Chabukswar & Mukherjee
The world's longest straight line on land was calculated by researchers Rohan Chabukswar of the United Technologies Research Centre (UTRC) in Cork (Ireland) and Kushal Mukherjee at IBM's Research Laboratory in New Delhi (India).
In a paper published earlier this year (and last updated on 25 December), they set out their solution to the question of finding the world's longest straight lines over land and at sea. That question sounds simple enough, but isn't: "This is an optimisation problem, rendered chaotic by the presence of islands and lakes, and indeed the fractal nature of the coasts".
They were prompted by a map that had raised a lot of discussion since its first publication on Reddit in 2012. Posted by user kepleronlyknows, it purports to show the longest possible straight-line sailing route in the world: from Pakistan to Kamchatka, threading the needle twice – through the Mozambique Strait separating Madagascar from the African mainland, and via the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica.
Walk this way
A long walk indeed, but a straight one: Portugal to China
Image: Chabukswar & Mukherjee
Commenters have since sought to prove or disprove the longest straight-line sea route, and the analogous route over land. Suggested but disproved longer routes include two nautical ones: from Norway to Antarctica – a valid route, but not in fact as long as the Pakistan to Kamchatka one; and from Québec to British Columbia, which turns out not to be a perfectly straight line.
One suggested longer overland route leads from from Wenling in China to Greenville in Liberia. But this line crosses the Dead Sea and if, as the authors say, that qualifies as a 'major body of water', it disqualifies the route as being entirely over land.
Strangely enough, the direction from Portugal to China is due northeast
Image: Google Earth
So Messrs. Chabukswar and Mukherjee decided to put the issue through a scientific wrangler. Instead of conducting an exhaustive search of all possible routes – more than 233 million great circles (3), as the authors suggest - they calculated the two paths using a so-called branch-and-bound algorithm.
They found that the original poster on Reddit was right: the longest sailable straight-line path does connect Pakistan to Kamchatka. To be precise, it links Sonmiani (25°17′ N, 66°40′ E), a coastal town (4) approximately 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Karachi, with an unnamed location in the Karaginsky District (58°37′ N, 162°14′ E), a virtually uninhabited part in the north of the Kamchatka peninsula. The path is almost 20,000 miles long (to be precise: 19,939.8 miles, or 32,090 km).
Steppe by steppe...
Image: Google Earth
The same algorithm was let loose on the dry-land variety of the straight-line question. Here, the answer links a point near Sagres (37°2′ N 8°55′ W) to a point in the south of the greater Quanzhou metro area (24◦33′ N, 118◦38′ E). The distance covered is much smaller than the longest straight line at sea: just short of 7,000 miles (6,984.8 miles, or 11,241 km).
The researchers formulate a few theoretical caveats to their result, and one practical one: "The problem was approached as a purely mathematical exercise. The authors do not recommend sailing or driving along the found paths".
There is hope, however, for whoever had their heart set on long straight-line travels. Here are a few of the world's longest straight-line roads (5):
1. Highway 10 (Saudi Arabia): 159 miles (256 km)
There is little remarkable about either Haradh or Al Batha, two dusty towns in Saudi Arabia's Rub-al-Khali desert, or the featureless distance between them. Except that almost that entire stretch is traversed by a dead-straight road. Leaving the oil town of Haradh in the interior of the country, Saudi Highway 10 heads due east in a curveless line for 159 miles (256 km), bending slightly before entering Al Batha, near the Gulf coast and the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates. That makes Highway 10 the longest straight stretch of road in the world.
2. US-54 (United States): 108 miles (173 km)
In its entirety, US Route 54 runs from Griggsville, Illinois to El Paso, Texas, covering 1,197 miles (2,115 km). For 108 miles, from Liberal, Kansas to Dalhart, Texas, US-54 runs in a virtually straight line (passing through Oklahoma as well). There are a few slight kinks in over the course of 54's 'straight' trajectory, though.
3. Eyre Highway, Australia (90 miles, 145.6 km)
The entire Eyre Highway is 1,030 miles (1,660 km) long, linking Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta in South Australia across the deserted Nullarbor Plain. It is part of Highway 1 that connects Perth to Adelaide, and the only 'sealed' road between both states. Between Balladonia and Caiguna, the road is completely straight for 90 miles – the longest stretch of straight road in Australia, commonly known as '90 Mile Straight'.
Strange Maps #954
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(1) A 7,500-mile (12,000-km) China Railway cargo service from Yiwu, calling on Hamburg, London and Madrid. The service could become part of China's wider Belt and Road Initiative: a massive infrastructure project connecting Chinese manufacturing to its markets in Europe and elsewhere.
(2) Perhaps the 1,000-odd inhabitants of Sagres, the westernmost point on the European road network, will be less surprised. Sagres also is a terminus of the longest (non-straight) driveable distance between two points on earth. The other one is Khasan, a Russian city on the North Korean border, and the eastern terminus of that country's road network. The route connecting both places is 8,726 miles (14,043 km) long.
(3) A great circle or orthodrome is the largest circle that can be drawn on a spherical object.
(4) Sonmiani is also notable as the northernmost point of the Arabian Sea, a seaside resort for Karachiites and a launch site for the Pakistani space agency.
(5) Most so-called straight roads have slight curves, hence the many differing lists.
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Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
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