blue marble and EPIC

The header image above consists of two photographs taken 43 years apart, and between which a truly amazing thread of history flows. Both, of course, are of Earth. I’m virtually certain that you’ve seen the photo on the left hundreds if not thousands of times in your life. You may have seen the photo on the right only once or twice, or perhaps not at all before now. Yet despite the ubiquity with which the photo on the left has been reproduced over the years, technically speaking it is one of the rarest photographs in human history: it’s a clear, full shot of the planet Earth in full frontal sunlight taken in a single frame. A very few pictures like this had been taken before by space probes, but none quite as spectacular as this one. The photo has been named The Blue Marble and it was taken on December 7, 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, the last lunar landing mission.

Then, nine days ago (July 20, 2015), the Blue Marble finally had some company. NASA released an image from a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) which was, like the Blue Marble, a full sunlit view of Earth taken in a single frame. DSCOVR carries a camera called the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), and the term “EPIC” has already stuck as the name of this photo. NASA claims in its write-up (here) that this is the first time such a photo has been taken since that day in December 1972 that the astronauts of Apollo 17 captured Blue Marble. All the other images of Earth you’ve seen since then are photo mosaics, stitched together from individual pictures taken at different times. EPIC, though, is the full deal: our entire world, one moment in time and space. From what I read on the page, the photo was taken on July 6, 2015.

Looking at these two photos side-by-side, I’m amazed and awed at the totality of what they represent, not just in a spatial sense but a temporal one too. I was alive on December 7, 1972, although I was quite young. While I am not in the Blue Marble–which shows Africa and the Arabian Peninsula most prominently–I am in EPIC. The place where I live is clearly visible in the picture and uncovered by clouds. Possibly you are in this picture too. I did a quick statistical analysis and discovered to my surprise that only 27.6% of the world’s population is over 43, which means only about 27.6% of the people who are now living on the Earth were also here in December 1972 when Blue Marble was taken. Statistically speaking, most of us are pretty new here. That’s kind of an amazing thought.

But these two pictures capture our dreams, hopes, aspirations, problems and tragedies as much as they capture us. Also pictured in these photos are war, deprivation, poverty, climate change, corruption, racism, and environmental pollution–alongside kindness, charity, hope, love, determination, compassion and mercy. Almost everything we are as a species is in these two photos. The only parts of “us” that managed to escape them are a few little bits of junk flying through space, and a bubble of radio waves that speak for us at the speed of light. No two photographs in human history have ever crammed so much into one frame.

Astronauts who have left Earth–particularly those who went to the Moon–often speak of being changed spiritually by the experience of seeing the planet from space. Looking at these pictures I can definitely see why. You can linger a lot on these images. I hope in the years to come we’ll begin to see EPIC become as popular and ubiquitous as Blue Marble. These photos belong to all of us.

Photographs of this nature are incompatible with the concept of private ownership. They are, legally and morally, in the public domain.