Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Blue Marble: The importance of seeing our world in its entirety

This image of the Earth was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on their trip to the Moon on the 7th of December, 1972. It is one of the most famous images in recorded history and has come to be known as The Blue Marble

Not only is the image significant as it was taken by the last human beings to travel to the Moon (something that will hopefully soon change), but The Blue Marble is one of the first images that captured our world as a whole, without any of the borders we've been told to imagine between nations and cultures. The image shows the place of birth of every human being who has ever lived. The Blue Marble shows land, sea, clouds, vegetation, and ice. Just like the Earthrise and Pale Blue Dot images, The Blue Marble gives us pause to reflect upon our connections to one another and to the rest of our biosphere. Seeing our world as a whole set amongst the background black of space should remind us that we're all in this crazy thing called life together and that our world is only one amongst what we now know to be a very great many.

Seeing the World We've Made

All is Fair in Love and War, by Bugspray609
Any thoughtful person who takes the time to regard the known history of our species must assuredly, at least sometimes, take some pause when considering the dichotomy of how well and how bad we have treated each other. For all of the beauty we have created in our music and art and literature and architecture, we have have created just as much destruction and pain through our acts of selfishness and fear. I think any person who seeks a better life in this world for everyone has to admit to and understand the atrocities that have occurred in human history while working to stop such atrocities from occurring again (whether through direct or indirect means).

In the 1937 preface to his science-fiction story, "Star Maker", Olaf Stapledon wrote of the direct and indirect approaches to overcoming the crises of human suffering while commenting on the foreseen terror of the rise of fascism in Europe. He pointed out the importance developing the "self-critical self-consciousness of the human species" (something I see as the capability for us to review our actions and work to improve the world for future generations by improving our actions). Although written over three decades before The Blue Marble image was produced, Stapledon had the foresight to point out the potential importance of seeing our world as a whole:

"...Perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity to one another."

Stapledon even attempted a guess in Star Maker at what the Earth may look like from space:

"...The sheer beauty of our planet surprised me. It was a huge pearl, set in spangled ebony. It was nacrous, it was an opal. No, it was far more lovely than any jewel. Its patterned colouring was more subtle, more ethereal. It displayed the delicacy and brilliance, the intricacy and harmony of a live thing. Strange that in my remoteness I seemed to feel, as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake."

Olaf Stapledon couldn't have known it at the time of that writing, but the first official image taken of the Earth from space would be collected from a weapon of war, a V-2 rocket, less than a decade after the writing of Star Maker.

Earth from Space 
Taken from a V-2 Rocket in 1946, this is the first picture of Earth from space

Since the atmosphere of the Earth doesn't actually have a perfectly defined edge or separation that can tell you when you're still on Earth or when you're in space, a border called the Kármán Line was agreed upon for this purpose at 100 km above the surface of the planet. Theodore von Kármán, the namesake for the Kármán Line, was the first person to realize that it is around this altitude that the gases of the atmosphere become too rarified for aeronautical flight. As such, it's also this altitude that separates the study of aeronautics from the study of astronautics.

The first image of Earth taken by a camera that had passed the Kármán Line was taken on the 24th of October in 1946. This camera was riding along with a V-2 rocket, a weapon of war that was the progenitor of the rockets that took the first American astronauts into space and which took the first people to the Moon. It's somewhat ironic that one of the arguably most important pictures in history, one which has the power to captivate our wonder and to show us that we really are all in this together, was captured from an implement of death and destruction.

You can find more information about the first picture of Earth from space in this article from Air & Space Magazine.

Capturing the Blue Marble

There have been lots of pictures taken of the entirety of the Earth from spacecraft since that first one in 1946, but The Blue Marble remains as the first full shot of our world fully lit by the sun. 

Still, there are a lot of other great images from spacecraft of the Earth that have been released. Here, for example, are satellite composite images of Earth released by NASA in 2001 and 2002:

Composite images of the Earth from space, developed by NASA

Another fantastic image of our world is one known as The Blue Marble 2012. In the first week after its release, the Flickr page for the image garnered over 3 million views and now stands at almost 6 million views total. It's a fantastic composite image of our world that was taken from the Suomi NPP satellite:

The Blue Marble and similar images are testaments to our technological and scientific progress as a species. I think everyone should take a moment, at least once in their goings about in their daily lives, to consider the importance of seeing our world as a whole. 

Capturing images and videos of our Earth gives us a chance to look at our entire biosphere as though it is one living entity. Just as all humans are composed of human cells and cells of microorganisms that work together in one large system, our world can be viewed as one entity with one biosphere composed of many trillions of trillions of organisms that all function together as one whole (think: Gaia Hypothesis). It's especially intriguing to watch video, like the ISS Ustream Live Feed, that shows some of the dynamic processes on Earth that can be seen from space.

There's no knowing yet if biology is itself a cosmological imperative or if maybe life as we know it on our little Blue Marble is just the happenstance of chemistry and physics in one place and in one time. Many of us think the former is more likely, especially given the vastness of our universe and the myriad worlds we now know to exist outside of our own, yet we won't know more without further exploration. 

When I see The Blue Marble, it reminds me that all of our technological and cultural advancement over the last two hundred thousand years may just be the beginning of our advancement as a cosmologically conscious species. The Blue Marble, as an image, couldn't have been taken without our first taking those minuscule steps into space. If we continue working together to advance ourselves, technologically and philosophically, then maybe one day The Blue Marble will be an icon for how we first took to the heavens to know more about our world and its place in the cosmos.

Update (10 June 2015):

For more information about the importance of seeing our world from space, check out this article published in Space Policy in 2010 by my friend, Sanjoy Som. He discusses the importance of The Blue Marble and has proposed that we create a world flag with The Blue Marble at its center to support future exploration for all of our species and all of our biosphere. If you're interested in getting involved in spreading the word about The Blue Marble, check out One Flag in Space as well.

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