Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Earth, from space, a distant speck

By Michael J.W. Stickings

There is something both glorious and terrifying about space, and about our place in it, this tiny planet that seems like, and really is, a miniscule speck against the backdrop of a neverending vastness, a tiny particle surrounded by the awesome wonders of a universe we know so much about, and so little too.

We look outward into this vastness, with wonder, searching for answers, or just admiring the cosmos, from the perspective of earth at the center, everything in relation to us, to our planet.

But what about the other way around? What does the Earth look like when you're out there? Now we know. As Phil Plait writes at Slate:

This is nothing short of stunning: Two spacecraft on nearly opposite sides of the solar system both took pictures of the Earth at nearly the same time, showing our entire planet as not much more than a smeared flash of slightly overexposed light.

There is the image of the Earth taken by the Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn. There we are, that relatively bright speck of light below the rings, 1.4 billion kilometers away.

And there is the image of Earth and the Moon taken by the Messenger spacecraft, orbiting Mercury. There we are, 50 million kilometers away.

As Plait concludes, with the wonder and amazement he always brings to his writing:

[T]he legacy of these images may be the smallness, the shining insignificance and singular beauty of our planet hanging in the depths of space. Context matters. We send our robot proxies into the terrible vastness, and when they turn them around to look back at us we see ourselves for who and what we really are. We're part of that Universe, and it's an outstanding achievement even being able to acknowledge that.

Stunning indeed.

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  • Small, of course, is not insignificant. The earth is an amazing plant. For example, it has a huge magnetic field. It has an unbelievably large moon. It has plate tectonics! All of these things and more are probably necessary for the development of advanced life forms.

    What I find interesting is pretty much all of the universe scales the same. Get far enough away and galaxies look the same--including their little orbiting galaxies. But back on earth, SFO to Hong Kong is still a terrible flight.

    By Anonymous Frank Moraes, at 6:12 PM  

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