Earth from the rings of Saturn
From NASA Cassini spacecraft
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written portion only, except quoted sections
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us.
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of,
where 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 young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child,
inventor and explorer, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there
-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
--Dr. Carl Sagan
"The Pale Blue Dot"
We look around every day and see crowds. Cities alive with bustling humans going about their business. Freeways jammed with cars, trucks, and motorcycles, always going somewhere. Even outside the urban areas, it's still a crowded place, chockablock with trees, plants, animals, and insects. We tend to think of earth as a place running out of space.
Then something happens. A picture, always worth a thousand words, appears before us, tapping that sense of awe within and putting the percolating details of life in proper perspective.
This week, NASA leaked the very first pictures of Earth taken by the Cassini space probe, currently orbiting the ringed planet Saturn. At first you don't see it. Then, you do. A small bluish speck glowing by reflected sunlight against the empty backdrop of the universe. Your mouth falls open just a bit; maybe you take an involuntary gasp.
Astronauts and Cosmonauts have all talked about that magical moment of perspective when they first see their home planet from space. Suddenly, a world and its people once thought of as being bisected and divided by borders and boundaries is seen, not as a collection of geopolitical states and races, but as one organism, fragile and alone, hanging in a vast ocean of...nothing.
It is a humbling thing to behold. We, as a human race, tend to think highly of ourselves, of our place in the universe. To be fair, there are those of us who do produce large splashes in our particular pond. But we have always considered us to be favored by creation, what- or whom-ever the author. In our early history, earth was thought to be at the center of the universe, that the sun orbited around us instead of the other way around. When Copernicus first proposed the idea of a sun-centered system, he was brutalized by the religious authorities of the day, who thought he was somehow insulting God.
The truth is that the earth and her teeming billions are but one planet in an otherwise unremarkable solar system floating around the galaxy, not close to the busy center, but shunted off to the side. Even our galaxy, vast and seemingly crowded with hundreds of billions of stars is but one of hundreds of billions floating throughout the known universe.
And there are those who postulate that our universe -- all 326 x 10 to the 26th cubic light years of it, may be only one of an infinite number of other universes occupying some as-yet-unknown and incomprehensibly large structure.
Feel small yet?
This is our crowded planet...
...in the form of the San Ysidro border crossing between Mexico and the United States. Still a familiar sight to commuters struggling on countless freeways every morning and evening.
Take a step back to Earth orbit. This is also familiar...
...to many of us. Earth is seen both as a surface and as an independent planet. We can see the curvature of the globe, and the effects of weather in an active atmosphere.
Let's go a bit further.
This is perhaps one of the most well-known and recognized images, planet Earth rising above the horizon of the Moon, taken by the Apollo 8 Astronauts. This was a revelation to many. Now the Earth is seen as a distant orb in the sky, still recognizable as a planet. At this point, many saw for the first time how lonely and fragile our home truly was.
One of the most distant of humanity's emissaries, Voyager I, snapped this image as part of it's famed "family portrtait" of our solar system. What was shocking was, first of all, that the pictures took several feet to capture all the planets. Secondly, we saw how incredibly small our home was from the edge of our own solar system. Earth is a bare speck, about a pixel and a half, seemingly lost against the cosmic gulf.
Now, let's take a really large jump.
Here's a different family portrait. Our galaxy, which we have called the Milky Way is here portrayed as scientists think it looks, a series of concentric rings with a barred spiral at the center. Our sun and family of planets lies roughly at the point of the arrow, in what's called the Orion arm. The galaxy is 100,000 light years across, meaning that the light from a star on the left side would take 100,000 years to be seen from a star on the right edge. This is a massive structure, at least from our perspective. But things get even bigger.
This is the local group, a cluster of some 54 galaxies occupying a space of 10 million light years. Within those galaxies are thousands of millions of stars, probably many with planets, and maybe, just maybe, a few with intelligent life.
If you mind is not sufficiently boggled yet, let's take yet another step.
Actually, this is a triple step. Each one of those bright spots is not a single galaxy, or even a single group, but a cluster of galaxies, numbering as many as 10,000 galaxies per cluster. Those clusters are organized into super clusters, anywhere from 100 to 1,000 clusters. Then, the super clusters are formed into filaments, such as you see above, some of which, multiple billions of light years in length, may span up to 5% of the known universe.
The universe is thought to be an orb spanning some 154 billion light years across. But it may not stop there.
Theoreticians postulate that our universe, as vast as it is, may be only one of an infinite number of universes occupying some unimaginably gigantic...space... somewhere else.
Humanity occupies a small planet in an unremarkable solar system in the far suburbs of an average galaxy, which is part of a cluster, a supercluster, a filament, and at least one universe.
What is really sobering about this perspective is that, as far as we know, humanity is the only life, intelligent or otherwise, anywhere to be found.
Perhaps if we all took a moment to realize how rare and precious life is in the entire span of existence, we might actually find a way to live in peace. It would be a shame if humanity, through a spasm of hate, destroyed itself, leaving a cosmos that is truly empty.