Head Toward the Light

Posted from Christchurch, New Zealand
Posted from Christchurch, New Zealand European Space Agency

Unfazed by NASA's snazzy imagery, the European Space Agency recently rolled out some glossy black photos of its own: the Earth at night, as seen by the Rosetta spacecraft some 75,000 kilometers above the Indian Ocean, just last Tuesday.

I've seen Earth-at-night posters before, but I particularly like this one, because it's an entire hemisphere, and because of the blazing crescent, reminiscent of a new moon, that's visible in the south. Look closely and you can make out parts of Africa, India and Asia, as well as marvel at the inky blackness of the Southern Hemisphere.

Images of the Earth are small potatoes for the unmanned Rosetta. Its day job--which it won't start until 2014, after a ten-year commute--is to catch up to a distant comet and then send out an automated landing craft to touch down on the surface. To build up enough speed to get there on time, Rosetta is doing two separate slingshot-around-Earth maneuvers, aided by a slingshot around Mars, before hurtling out through the asteroid belt toward comet Churyumov-Geramisenko, more than 30 million kilometers away.

But just before Rosetta departs Earth forever, take another look at that illuminated crescent. That's the 24-hour daylight of the Antarctic summer bleeding through onto the dark side of the Earth. And for the next six weeks, it's going to be my home. Along with several National Science Foundation-sponsored scientists, I'll be sleeping in tents, camping at penguin colonies and sampling lava flows on a dormant volcano. Also, drinking lots of instant soup. I'll be posting regular updates to The Gist whenever I reach an Internet connection.

That's assuming I ever see my luggage again. Stay tuned.

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