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Regional Beauty Shot: The Bay Area, at Night, From Space

| December 4, 2013
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The San Francisco Bay Area, in an International Space Station image. (NASA/European Space Agency)

The San Francisco Bay Area, in an International Space Station image. (NASA/European Space Agency)

Let’s cut to the chase: Space pictures — images of the Earth shot from above, images of the heavens shot from any perspective — are captivating, period. The European Space Agency and NASA released the image above earlier this week (it was actually shot by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station nearly a year ago). The big, high-res version of the photo is here: Bay Area at night. And if you’re curious how the image relates to a map of the region, a Reddit user created a nice night overlay using Google Maps.

Anyway: Just look at us and the way we beam our presence into space. I look for my home place in a well-known university town in the East Bay. I can’t see my house or block, of course, but I can trace the main streets, and I swear the nearby BART station stands out in the night view from the more dimly lit surrounding neighborhood.

While we’re contemplating our Bay Area beauty shot, here’s another picture to consider, an image that puts our presence into a different context: a now-famous image from NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, a picture released last summer. In taking a mosaic of the planet and its rings as seen from its shadowed side, the spacecraft’s cameras also captured a view of the Earth — from a distance of 900 million miles (roughly 10 times the distance from the Earth to the sun). Here we are, the bright blue dot at the lower right of the frame (and here’s a bonus picture: the same image enhanced to show the moon).

A view of Saturn and its rings with a distant Earth--the bright blue dot at lower right--in the background. (NASA/ESA)

A view of Saturn and its rings with a distant Earth–the bright blue dot at lower right–in the background. (NASA/ESA)

Carolyn Porco, the astrophysicist working as the lead imaging scientist on the Cassini mission, was on the PBS “NewsHour” last week and talked about the picture:

Host Judy Woodruff: The most remarkable image to me is, of course, the one where you see Saturn in the corner and you see the rings, and then you see in the distance this tiny blue dot, which is Earth. Tell us about that image and the meaning of it.

Carolyn Porco: Well, that image has a long and beautiful history.

And it goes back all the way to the Voyager mission, when Carl Sagan and I and others planned and executed an image taken from beyond the orbit of Neptune, looking back at the Earth, and it’s become known since then as the “Pale Blue Dot” image, as describe by Carl Sagan so eloquently.

And that image, even though it’s not much to look at, in the hands of Carl Sagan became a kind of romantic allegory of the human condition, showing the Earth alone in the vastness of space and small and fragile, and with the immediate recognition that everybody we have ever known, everyone who has ever been alive in the history of our planet lived on that dot.

Ever since I began my tenure as the leader on the imaging team for the Cassini mission, I have wanted to do that picture over again, only make it better. The idea of the Voyager “Pale Blue Dot” was to take a picture of the Earth awash in a sea of stars.

Well, if you look at Voyager’s “Pale Blue Dot,” there are no stars. Well, our new Cassini “Pale Blue Dot” image does have stars in it, and it shows the Earth against the beauty of Saturn’s rings.

My idea was, when thinking of doing this image over again, wouldn’t it be great if we could get the people of the world to know ahead of time that their picture was going to be taken from a billion miles away, and let them know at this moment, go out, look up, contemplate your existence, contemplate the beauty and the lushness of our own planet, marvel at your own existence, and appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishment that has made this interplanetary photo session possible?

And that’s exactly what it’s done.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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