They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. A picture alone can even tell the entire story of its subjects – their posture, clothes, environment, even the lines on their face telling us something about them. Sometimes, though, pictures can do so much more. They don’t just speak a thousand words, or tell just a few stories. Sometimes, they tell billions. Sometimes, pictures tell the story of all of us.
On Friday 19th July, 2013 we all posed for a portrait on a planetary scale. The photographer was over one billion kilometres away, peering through the depths of space, back home.
The Cassini spacecraft had already achieved remarkable things by 2013. Launched 16 years earlier, the spacecraft had already out-lived its sell-by date by five years. Its findings were so remarkable and its instruments functioning so well that NASA simply couldn’t put it to sleep. By the middle of 2013, it had reached a point in its orbit of the ringed planet that allowed it to take in the spectacle of its surroundings. It craned its neck and took a series of breathtaking photographs of Saturn, its rings beautifullly illuminated from underneath by the waning sunlight in the depths of our solar system. The spacecraft had taken photographs like this before, but this one stood out. It was unique because, there, less than a pixel wide, easily confused for a smudge of dust on the screens we view it on, tucked underneath the right hand side of the planet, is us.
That dot is home and in that one image, Cassini captured every story that has ever been on our planet. Every triumph, every calamity and every story of hope. It captured every individual, of every creed, that has ever been. Pictures like this offer a rare opportunity to take stock of our world and what we are doing on it. Images like this reveal the power of astronomy as a humbling experience, scaling the tribulations of our world into an unremarkable speck.
Cassini was also peering at the 27 countries that had collaborated during its lifespan, as it went from an idea on blueprints, through laboratories and workshops and and out into space as an outpost amongst the stars. Cassini, and the probes that came before it and will follow in its footsteps, are a beacon of scientific and engineering prowess and a testament to human ingenuity and the power of collaboration. Rarely do nations come together for such a powerful and fundamentally good cause. Today, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of this power and to communicate to young people that discovery and bravery comes through opennness and collaboration.
Cassini spoke to a very human yearning for exploration and discovery and must be celebrated. This mission and this image revealed the best in us. Now it is up to us to keep exploring.
This post is an excerpt from a much larger project that I hope to announce soon!
‘Til next time…