8 December 2007

Pics in space

One of the most exciting science projects we plan to do aboard the new Beagle is to correlate ocean surface biological surveys with images of our position taken at the same time by our astronaut friends aboard the International Space Station.

The premise of such a study got a big boost this week when Nature published special News Features and Commentaries on earth monitoring.

The issue includes an essay by Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation. Way back in 1966 Brand promoted 'the idea of photographing the "whole Earth" from space, hoping that it would stimulate humanity's interest in its mega-habitat.'

And oh, how it did. Two years later, in December 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth orbit and travel far enough away to see and photograph our fragile planet in the round.

On Christmas Eve, they transmitted the first images of the whole Earth that anyone had ever seen. One of their photos, called 'Earthrise', right, was beautifully described by Wolf Schäfer as 'the sublime Copernican spectacle of the earth rising above the rim of the moon'. The image galvanised the environmental movement.

Stewart Brand was right in 1966, so let's listen carefully to him now. This week, Brand wants something more specific than pictures the whole Earth from space. He wants to link images of Earth, taken from the sweet spot between Earth and Sun called 'Lagrange-1', with biotic surveys on Earth including those enabled by metagenomics. This will help us to understand, among other things, how Earth's energy dynamics are modified by life.

The International Space Station is nowhere near 'Legrange-1', but it is manned and can therefore capture not only detailed but also responsive pictures of Earth to relate to data on living communities (both macroscopic and microscopic/metagenomic) collected by none other than the new Beagle.

So, Brand argues, metagenomic data + information-rich pictures of Earth from space = 'a unifying body of data, ideas, models and images of the whole-Earth system' that 'could inspire the public and may shift scientific thinking.'

Throw in a charismatic tall ship with a scientific legacy like the Beagle's and we might find ourselves even closer to achieving Brand's vision.

1 comment:

Richard Carter, FCD said...

Great post title!

I'm a big fan of The Long Now Foundation's podcasts: