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Robert Miller: A tiny pinpoint of light in the solar system

April 29, 2017 GMT

First of all, it is a remarkable image.

Earlier this month, the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, took a final look home.

It captured a picture of Earth shining below one of Saturn’s rings. From 870 million miles away, our planet is a bright point in black space.

“What a beautiful shot,” said science journalist and space historian Andrew Chaikin.

“I was pretty amazed,” said Bill Cloutier, one of the leaders of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford. “In the cropped version, you can even make out the moon.”

If we live in a golden age of exploration of our solar system, we have also redefined what our own place in it looks like.

For more than 50 years, spacecraft — and the people riding in them — have taken extraordinary pictures of our home.

“I have a collection of them,” said NASA Chief Historian William Berry. “I call them ‘Postcards from Home.’”

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There were the first shots of earth for the Lunar Orbiter in 1966. Then astronaut William Anders snapped the first Earthrise picture on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

Then came the astonishing Blue Marble picture from the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. It is one of the most reproduced images in history, printed on everything from mouse pads to the Whole Earth Catalogue.

Today, crews at the International Space Station have given us breathtaking pictures of our cities at night, of flooding rivers and of the Northern Lghts arcing over Scandinavia.

And in 1990, at the bidding of astronomer Carl Sagan, the Voyager spacecraft turned around as it was heading out of our solar system and caught a picture of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away — the Pale Blue Dot.

These pictures have changed lives.

NASA’s Berry said that even the first black-and-white pictures of Earth from the Lunar Orbiter in 1964 made the front page of newspapers.

“At the time, we thought, ‘This is what earth looks like,’ ” he said.

But the Apollo pictures — in color — took things to a different level.

Geoff Chester, spokesman for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., said he was a 15-year-old in 1968, pointing his telescope into the night sky.

“Then the Apollo picture of Earthrise came out and I was ‘Whoa …..Wait a minute!’” Chester said. “It really got me interested in astronomy.”

The photos have also allowed people to see the Earth in its entirety. Before the Blue Marble picture, there were globes and maps. Then suddenly, there was an image of a living place with clouds and oceans and continents, connected.

“It let us see the birthplace of humanity — Africa,” said Monte Robson of New Milford, director of the McCarthy Observatory. “And then, above it was the birthplace of civilization — Mesopotamia. And to the south. There was Antarctica.”

“It puts things in perspective,” Cloutier said. “We have lines drawn on maps. In that picture, there are no lines.”

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Chaikin and others also point out that the first Earth Day occurred in 1970, two years after the Earthrise picture, two years before the Blue Marble.

“It was a catalyst,” he said of the Earthrise picture and the daybreak of the environmental movement in the United States. “It wasn’t the reason for Earth Day, but it certainly was in the mix.”

These pictures — and the others that have followed — show us the spectacular nature of our planet. Whether they’ve given us any sort of cosmic consciousness is debatable.

“In a way, yes, in a way, no,” said Chester of the US Naval Observatory.

One problem, Chester said, is that that space missions have given us so many beautiful images that we’re no longer so awed by them.

“We think, ‘There’s another one of Saturn, there’s another one of Jupiter,’” Chester said. “We’ve become a little blasé.”

And despite our knowing now, fully, that we live on one small planet, he said, we still get caught up in problems both personal and national. Not global.

“People lose track of the big picture when there are so many problems involved in the smaller pictures,” he said.

Which is why the picture of Earth — seen from the rings of Saturn — can seem so affecting. There we are, a pinpoint of light. And it contains all the life we know or have ever known.

“There is no Planet B,” Robson said. “We have to cherish this one.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com