By Mike Simmons

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We go about our daily routines without paying much attention to other things. At night we’re watching whatever is in the places that are lit. Few look up to admire the night sky and ponder our place in the Universe, especially in cities where the sight is less than spectacular. We stay focused on what we’re doing in our own personal universe – a tiny part of a small planet in one of billions of galaxies.

Even those who marvel at a starlit sky don’t always recognize what they’re seeing. Without something to give a sense of distance and depth, the Milky Way looks like a shimmering two-dimensional path of light across the heavens. Impressive but not the whole story. Use your imagination to fill in some missing information – the distance to the Moon, planets, stars, and other objects – and you get a sense of our three-dimensional solar system and the endless depths of stars orbiting the galaxies center that we see from our viewpoint.

Here’s the most important part of that perspective – we all see it, wherever we are on Earth. We’re all on the same small speck of dirt in one tiny part of the Universe. We’re looking out different windows of Spaceship Earth (as Buckminster Fuller called it). Some are looking out windows in the direction the Earth is moving, while others are looking back where we’ve been. In time the Earth rotates and our windows give us a view in the opposite direction.

Imagine we were on an asteroid some 10 kilometers across. You could walk around the “world” in a day if you were ambitious and fit enough. No matter where you went you’d see the stars all around. You’d just be looking in different directions at different times, like riding a carousel and watching nearby people sweep by, only to return to your view moments later. From this small asteroid, would you get the sense we’re all on one “spaceship” traveling through space together? I think so. Thatt’s no different than Earth. The “windows” are just farther apart. The sky seems to rotate above us rather than our past it.

The stars from Earth are the same as from the little asteroid, and the rest of the Spaceship Earth’s passengers see them just as we do. We really are, quite literally, in this together.

Frank White, author of The Overview Effect in which he describes the change in perception astronauts sometimes experience after seeing Earth from orbit, once asked at a conference of space enthusiasts, “How many of you would like to go into space?” Of course nearly everyone raised their hands. “Congratulations”, he said. “You made it.” We’re in space. All of us. Together.

What I find most interesting about the “Overview Effect” is that it’s not looking down at Earth that causes it. There is no up or down in space, and astronauts are as likely to see Earth floating “above” them as “below”. It’s seeing Earth as a planet in space that does it – surrounded by stars, just as we see the Moon among the stars from Earth.

You can get a good sense of this from an incredible video by Christoph Malin called Making the Invisible Visible. Malin, a well-known astrophotographer and videographer and team member of The World at Night, has produced many extraordinary images and videos that show us the wonders of the night sky from special places around the world, but this time he’s created something unique by editing together the work of others. Not just anyone, though – the time-lapse videos in Making the Visible Invisible come from the International Space Station, and are intertwined with commentary from astronaut Don Petit who took much of the footage. What Malin has woven together is well worth sixteen minutes of anyone's time to watch. But there’s more to experience here than meets the eye.

What Malin has done is give us a sense of looking back at our planet from space. In the video Earth is a place teeming with billions of humans. We’re almost everywhere you look as the space station circles the Earth every 90 minutes or so. That’s us – not me and them. It’s us – all of us. It really does seem like one planet that happens to have humans scattered over it.

For the rest of us who will never make it into space (or live on a small asteroid), we can only look up and add what we know about what we’re seeing. We know there are others looking up from around the world. They photograph the sky from their “window” and it looks like ours. I wrote about this last year for Fragile Oasis, an organization founded by astronauts Ron Garan and Nicole Stott. Garan and Stott were struck by how fragile the Earth looked from space – the atmosphere that’s essential for life a wisp-thin layer, the vast oceans appearing finite – and how alone it is as our only potential home in the vastness of the Universe. Fragile Oasis works to create collaboration between organizations to solve the problems we face. It’s similar to Astronomers Without Borders connecting people through sharing our sky – One People, One Sky. You can read my blog post, Astronomy: The Overview Effect for the Rest of Us, on the Fragile Oasis website.

Anything that makes us realize that we really are all in this together is good. We celebrate astronomy with our activities during Global Astronomy Month, and we come together throughout the year in all the Astronomers Without Borders programs. But there is much more to astronomy than the activities. Astronomy shows us our place, and who we are. It provides context to human activity and our very existence. But never more so than when we’re looking up together, whether through one window or millions.

Is it any wonder astronomers are so driven to share that with others?


Mike Simmons is the founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. No stranger to organizing global programs, Mike was was co-chair of 100 Hours of Astronomy in the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Mike has been an amateur astronomer involved in public outreach and education for 40 years.


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