By Vladimir Brezina
Manned missions to Mars and colonies on the moon seize the imagination, at least of Presidents and would-be Presidents :-). Everyone else knows that these are dreams, half-baked, arguably pointless, and certainly unrealizable any time soon (unless it be by the Chinese).
But, in the meantime, NASA has been steadily adding to, perfecting, and using for a huge variety of scientific missions its workaday tools, its fleet of unmanned satellites. Some of these look outward into space. But many orbit and look down on the Earth itself—and generate all kinds of fascinating and beautiful images.
This past week, NASA released two new images of the Earth as the iconic Blue Marble—the blue planet, seen in its entirety, against the vast blackness of space.
These images were each stitched together from a number of partial images taken during multiple orbits of the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. While the satellite was orbiting the Earth at an altitude of only 512 miles, the composite images appear to originate from an altitude of 7,918 miles. At the same time, they have very high resolution—the original images, with 8,000 x 8,000 and 11,500 x 11,500 pixels respectively, can be downloaded here and here.
As of February 2, 2012, the Western Hemisphere image had been viewed on Flickr over 3.1 million times, “making it one of the all time most viewed images on the [NASA Flickr] site after only one week.”
But that is still nowhere compared to the popularity of the original Blue Marble photo, a single image taken on December 7, 1972, from an altitude of about 28,000 miles by the crew of Apollo 17 as that spacecraft was on its way to the moon. By now, this must be one of the most widely seen and reproduced photos of all time:
Images such as these—and even before they came into being, science fiction writers’ imagination of what they would be like—have moved and inspired many:
Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
And they may have convinced some hold-outs that the Earth really is round… although, as the secretary of the Flat Earth Society remarked on seeing such photographs, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”