One night in February 1998, Vice President Al Gore awoke with a start.
He had dreamed of a satellite. It would sit far out in space, beyond the reach of more conventional orbiters, so distant it could capture all of planet Earth in one camera lens. It would then beam this view—the whole planetary disk, a la The Blue Marble—down to the planet below. The video would be live streamed on the Internet.
He couldn’t shake the idea. It had as much to do with sharing that vantage point—Earth as a single planet, home to all of the life we know in the universe—as it did with the technology required to make it happen.
“We all live on the same planet,” Gore told me in an interview on Monday. “We all face the same dangers and opportunities, we share the same responsibility for charting our course into the future.”
Soon after his dream, the vice president met with the director of NASA, who said that the agency could pull it off for less than $100 million. The project went forward. It was nicknamed “Goresat.”
Then 15 years of politics happened. Funding for the project came through, and the satellite (now called Triana) was built. But Republicans were never fond of the project—having, as it did, Clintonian connotations—and the incoming Bush administration postponed the spacecraft’s launch. So it sat in a closet for seven years.
That’s when NOAA and the U.S. Air Force began to take interest in it. “Goresat” was designed to sit at the first Lagrangian point, a calm spot between the gravitational eddies of the Earth and the sun. That’s also where solar weather observatories sit—and the two agencies needed a new sun-monitoring satellite, as their old one was getting on in years. NOAA and the Air Force provided funding to retrofit, launch, and maintain the satellite, which was newly dubbed the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR.
That’s how a satellite conceived in a vice president’s 1990s dreams finally launched in February of this year. And though it’s been adjusted to principally monitor solar wind, DSCOVR still has one eye turned back to Earth. Its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera—or, ahem, EPIC—will still capture an image of the whole planet many times a day. This camera will monitor specific wavelengths that alert scientists to the presence of certain materials like ozone, aerosols, and volcanic ash; but it will also generate a full disk photo 11 times a day.
In fact, it just did. On July 6, 2015, DSCOVR captured its first image of planet Earth—a view of North and Central America taken at solar noon. NASA and NOAA released the photo on Monday. The two agencies say they’re still working out some final kinks (the image has a bluish tint common to uncalibrated space pictures), but that, in September, pictures should start flowing 12 to 36 hours after they’re taken.
And that’s a big deal. Captured by Apollo astronauts coming back from the moon in December 1972, The Blue Marble is the first photo to show the entire globe in one frame. It has since been hailed as one of most important—and most reproduced—photos ever taken, an icon of globalism, humanitarianism, and the modern environmental movement.
“When I moved into my office in the West Wing of the White House in January of 1993, I asked NASA for a very large version of that picture to put on my wall,” Gore told me Monday. “It stayed there for eight years.”
“After the first six of those eight years, I asked NASA if they had another one—and I was surprised, just because I didn’t know the full story at that point, when they told me ‘no, that’s the only one, there’s not another one,’” he said.
Astronauts don’t go to the moon anymore, so we have relatively few new images of the entire Earth, captured all at once. Sure, we have lots and lots of images of parts of Earth, taken many times a day, which can be stitched together to give a complete picture of the globe, but there’s something about that whole-planet view: a sense of completeness, of closedness. It also has real scientific uses: A picture of the whole Earth measures the planet’s changing albedo in a way that composites don’t.
Gore said that, seeing the first picture on Monday, he felt gratitude to everyone who worked to put the craft into orbit. Be he also “felt something of the same emotion that I felt when I saw the first Blue Marble photo 42 and a half years ago, when I saw the first Earthrise image just four years prior to that.”
“It’s not an accident that that first image, called Earthrise, led to the passage of major environmental laws in the United States during the presidency of Richard Nixon, nor is it a coincidence that the first Earth Day was organized less than a year and a half after that first picture was seen. It changed, that picture changed, the way we thought about ourselves and our relationship to the Earth,” said Gore.
That orb is all we have to work with, and its picture is an image of our edges. DSCOVR will give us that view many times a day—and do it pretty inexpensively, too. Countless data sets and records depict some aspect of Earth and humanity at this point in our history: measures of GDP, of temperature, of births and deaths. To all those, we’re now adding this simple, important one.