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New satellite’s Earth ‘selfies’ may inspire

Last Wednesday, NASA launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The satellite will provide warnings of solar storms that affect our power grids, satellites and other technology. But that’s only part of the story.

This craft began its life as Triana, a project that was the brainchild of Vice President Al Gore, who was inspired by the whole-Earth pictures taken by Apollo astronauts. He wanted a satellite to send back repeated pictures of our whole Earth and put them on the Internet for all to see – a wonderful source of inspiration and no doubt a nice tool for educators. (It’s unofficial name was GoreSat.)

But before launch, Gore lost a presidential election to George W. Bush, and in the Bush administration, this bird was not gonna fly. It was put on the shelf until 2009. Additional instruments were added to provide data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that neat camera is still on board.

DSCOVR will reside at a gravitational sweet spot a million miles from us in the direction of the sun, giving the camera a constant view of the daytime Earth. (The James Webb Telescope – Hubble’s replacement – will be in a similar but opposite spot on the night side of Earth.)

This source of repeated Earth “selfies” could possibly change our view of our planet in many ways. We have a potential to realize that this planet is our only home and needs protection. As Carl Sagan said of Earth in his “Pale Blue Dot” video, “… 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 that ever was, lived out their lives."

The camera may also provide some unexpected scientific results. This happened with the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute’s Heritage Gallery images, a project in which some of the center director’s discretionary observing time has been used to provide the best-ever images of favorite celestial objects. Intended to provide some enjoyment to the public who funds NASA, these stunning images revealed details never seen by scientists, who would look at them and, intrigued, ask “What’s going on there?”

Science aside, the new view may fulfill Gore’s hopes for a reminder of our place in the universe. And remember Sagan’s caution that “The Earth, so far, is the only world known to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit? Yes. Settle? Not yet.”

Let’s hope that with DSCOVR, we re-discover our home. Earth could be the only planet with intelligent life. If so: We think, therefore everything exists: Let’s not only protect the Earth, but our universe.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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