10 September 2016

Places not our Own

One often hears talk about the dark, cold, empty expanse of space.  About how hostile and deadly it is, how quiet, how vast, etc.  This sort of talk discourages people from thinking too much about the larger cosmos, because it is unpleasant. Here we are on earth, sitting in our homes, watching rain drip from the trees—why think about such a vast array of alien and empty landscapes in which no one could survive a minute without being frozen to death or incinerated or crushed?

The asteroid 243 Ida, as imaged by the NASA probe Galileo in 1991.
Between us and Ida are millions of miles of virtually empty space.

This is not how I like to think about space.  You see, there are in the universe such things as "proper places"—some things belong in some places, and will tend to decay or lose their natures if removed from those places.  A fish out of water, a hot coal taken from the fire, etc.  Humans were made from the stuff of this planet.  We belong here.  We emphatically do not belong on Europa, with its icy sea at  -274 °F, or Venus with its welcoming atmosphere of high-pressure, superheated sulfuric acid.  The question of colonization of these other places (or more distant ones) is no good, to my mind,  first because it distracts from the fact that humans belong to the Earth and are part of this world, and second because it prompts us to think of places beyond earth under the aspect of possible inhabitation, which taints them because they are generally uninhabitable.

The icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, taken by NASA's Galileo probe in 1998.
When I get ready to go to bed I sometimes pull up NASA's stream of live video of the earth from the International Space Station.  The views are beautiful, but they often play into the normal mental constrast between the smallness of the glowing earth and the deep blackness of space.  Today I happened to tune in a few minutes before the sun set on the space station.  The sheet of clouds covering the landscape below slowly began to display a reflection of the sun shining above the station, out of its camera's view.  Then, as the reflection became brighter and the edge of dusk appeared on the cloudscape, the sun itself appeared.

The Sun in a false-color image in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Taken in October 2014 by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory.

We tend to imagine the sun as a swirling mass of orange flame, but in the unedited visible-spectrum images from the camera I saw something different.  The sun was brilliant, warm, and white.  Its brightness was so intense that it overwhelmed the camera, covering large portions of the image with intense lens flare.  As it descended toward the horizon, the brightness intensified, suggesting neither fire nor chaos, but an overwhelming principle of life, something so powerful in its vitality that it might overwhelm us.

The sun sets on the International Space Station.  Photo taken 10 September 2016.