Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Earth from Space

In a live conversation from the International Space Station last night, Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams told a group of school children in India that "Space is an amazing place for all. Here there are no borders, and the world is very peaceful". Sunita traveled to the ISS aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and plans to work there for the next six months.

The view of a world without borders may be the greatest benefit of making space tourism more accessible to the people of Earth in the future. But with a current price tag of about $20 million, few people can afford the trip. Several entrepreneurs are developing concepts for bringing space travel to the masses, and they are already busy building "spaceports" in places like New Mexico and west Texas. Competition between these companies will help push the price down by a factor of 100, but there are still relatively few people who will be able to afford a $200,000 seat.

Fortunately, an ongoing project by NASA is bringing the view of our planet without borders (or even clouds!) to computer screens around the globe. No doubt you have already seen the impressive composite image of the Earth, pieced together from satellite data obtained at different times and places when there were no clouds to block the view. NASA's "Blue Marble" project is now generating such images every month, so we can watch the surface of the Earth changing over time. At the highest resolution, each pixel in these new images spans just 500 meters on the ground.

Maybe if more people see these images and begin to think of the Earth as a place without borders, we can all live in the peaceful world that Sunita was talking about.

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