Imaging Earth, 2012 vs. 1972

NASA has released a phenomenal image:

Big Blue Marble 2012

Big Blue Marble, 2012 Edition. Click through and download the hi-res image to zoom in. It's worth your time.

Taken by the the Suomi NPP spacecraft on January 4. Ball Aerospace built the NPP spacecraft; the instrument, the snappily named Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), is Goddard’s work. Unbelievable.

If it looks vaguely familiar, that’s Earth. It’s kind of camera-shy, and when we’re focused on vital issues like the latest Romney-Gingrich throwdown in Florida, it doesn’t much have to worry about the paparazzi. But Apollo 17 astronauts famously caught it off guard nearly 40 years ago, on December 17, 1972.

Big Blue Marble, 1972

Big Blue Marble, 1972 edition

The above shot is credited with changing the way we look at Earth. The astronauts talked about how vulnerable our home appeared. They had a wide-angle view, and it was one blue marble and a helluva lot of killer black space.

One thing the newer image brings that the first didn’t is the wisp of atmosphere. It’s a halo, really.

Neither image deigns to recognize our physical presence. We seem invisible, all seven billion of us, our roads, bridges, buildings, bases, factories, mines, airports, warehouses, malls, everything. Many among us still can’t fathom that we can have a global impact. Looking at these shots, it’s not hard to understand why.

It’s befitting that our biggest global impact is invisible to us, too — gases, CO2 primarily, colorless, odorless, necessary for life on Earth, but also a risk to sea life (acidification) and sea-shore life (beachfront condos). That impact is very real, very measurable. If you don’t trust science, go see a faith healer next time you have strep throat.

But check out how thin that atmosphere is. A NOAA scientist — actually this guy (congratulations, Russ) — once described it to me as a sheet of paper on a standard basketball-size globe. Look how beautiful that planet is. Think about how we’re a part of it. How, far from being lords of it, our presence, from a few thousand miles away, can’t even be seen — only felt.

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