Last Friday, people the world over had their first chance ever to smile for a picture of Earth taken from outer space, when NASA's Cassini orbiter photographed our moon and planet from almost one-billion miles away.
Earth is the bright, starburst-looking flash of light at the middle of the photo, our moon the speck just down and to the left. From Saturn, our planet is hardly distinguishable as the orb we know and love. That being said, I'd love to see you snap a photo this good from 898,410,414 miles away. And remember, this is a raw, unprocessed image – just one in a huge batch that Cassini beamed down to Earth on Saturday.
According to Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco (who also organized the photo-opportunity with a global event called "The Day The Earth Smiled"), higher resolution and composite images of Earth and Saturn's moons are still a few weeks away:
We are planning 6 weeks to process the big mosaic — w/ Saturn, rings and Earth — but hopefully only a few days to do the high res Earth/Moon pic. And only that if we did a good job of determining exposure times. Those pics may need a lot of processing too. Fingers crossed that all goes well!
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.