Where are we in our galaxy?
A View From the Edge
The place you are standing occupies a spot on this planet. The field the farmer plows stretches across some of the surface. The coastline the fisherman sails goes from here to there. All these demonstrate the traditional need for maps. Where you are, how far you have to go, and in what direction; these are critical issues for us as we undertake our normal lives.
As man explored our planet Earth, we always sent cartographers (a fancy word for map makers) out into the unknown first. Lewis & Clark, Magellan, Drake, Humboldt, Livingstone, Rondon… all these great explorers had one thing uppermost in their minds: map what you see so you can explain it all back home, in order to open up a new frontier, so you can open up the future to everybody.
Twenty-two years ago, a most extraordinary mapping expedition took place. For the first time, in one continuous sweep, the surface and depth (of the oceans) of our planet were mapped from space with an instrument that was perhaps 10,000 times more accurate than any mapping tool used previously.
Not since the late ‘60s when we saw our planet for the first time as a whole (and learned it was a bit pear-shaped; glowing blue and brown and white in the vastness of near space) has anyone ever caused such a stir with geographers, geologists, explorers and resource managers.
The only one left out of this excitement 22 years ago was the general public.
The NASA mapping mission during a Shuttle flight was a bit of a ho-hum to the general public. What was wrong is that the media didn’t understand what was going on.
After all, who needs a better map? We have road maps, we have air charts and we have sea charts.
What resulted, however, was a detailed map of your home planet as you — and most scientists — only guessed at: a planet full of new promise, unexplored, un-dreamed of resources and, most of all, a one-time global understanding of where and with what we humans live.
The mapping that the shuttle completed was like a whole-earth catalogue, a whole-earth census of the planet we live on. Like the cartographers of old, those astronauts completed an amazing task, one that opened up our understanding of the planet on which we live.
And that need to know what we have, what possibilities exist, is now being stretched to our solar system and galaxy. This need is the reason for the Hubble Space Telescope and, amazingly, the newer James Webb Space Telescope, which is a hundred times more powerful.
Those beautiful images you see, far beyond anything you may have imagined, are exactly the same as a new Lewis & Clark expedition, Humboldt’s or Drake’s voyages. The James Webb Space Telescope is creating a map for mankind’s future exploration.
That’s what your space dollar is being spent on: Great map-making and eventual human exploration that your children will learn about in school, right up there alongside Drake, Vasco de Gama, Cook, Lewis and Clark.
Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.