Lonely Planet

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

If you need satellite images to put the news of the day in perspective, the news is probably not good. Satellite photography is the preferred method for announcing the arrival of hurricanes and it has become indispensable to showing the scale of the fires that are ravaging Southern California this week. It is also a popular visual accompaniment to stories about global warming and disappearing ice caps.

Since the first pictures of the Earth taken from outside its atmosphere (by a camera on a V-2 rocket launched in 1946), there has been something uncanny about pictures of the planet. They confirm, of course, that the Earth is round. But they also capture a frailty in the planet, its loneliness in space. In Milton's "Paradise Lost," just before the Devil takes up residence in the Garden of Eden and tempts its original residents into sin, he arrives on Earth out of the realm of chaos, and sees our planet rather the way the first astronauts may have seen it. Milton calls our planet "this pendent world."

As if it were just hanging there, unprotected, innocent, waiting to be despoiled. Which is, of course, exactly what the Devil is about to do, and what wildfires and hurricanes do with no insidious intent or no intent at all, but horrible consequences. Photographers in California have captured the personal cost of lost homes and displaced people, and they've documented heroic imagery of the battle against the great walls of flame, fires so powerful they seem made of some viscous orange liquid. But only the view from space could capture California -- that instantly recognizable bent-sided, ocean-girdled geographical icon of the good life -- going up in smoke.

From space, the choking smoke first appeared as wispy white clouds, ghostly smudges heading west into the Pacific Ocean. They don't so look so wispy now, as the fires continue to ravage homes and the smoke spreads farther and thicker over the ocean.

NASA maintains a Web page devoted to images of natural disasters that can be seen from space ( There was a dust storm in Egypt Saturday, but it was blowing in the unpopulated desert near the border with Libya. There's also been a great haze obscuring much of eastern China. Last week, there was flooding in Central America and fires in northern Australia.

The view from above captures not only the power of nature, but the hubris of man. "The only manmade object visible from space" has become a cliched claim, made for any number of our species' more ambitious monuments. The Great Wall of China qualifies, but so, too, do many cities, blotches that can be distinguished from less populated areas around them.

And last week in Dubai, at a conference where developers display their plans for new projects, the Nakheel company used satellite images to show how the desert landscape has been refashioned since 1973. New waterways and islands, peninsulas shaped like palm trees and a vast increase in urbanization (which makes the city look, unfortunately, like an infected pimple about to explode into the Persian Gulf) have been added.

Though these images of outsize urban ambition were offered in the spirit of celebration -- to wow the world -- satellite imagery has become more consistently associated with anxieties about the planet. Satellite images have become a kind of visual truth check, a way of seeing our impact on the world and the world's enduring power to undo our work.

It was 50 years ago this month that the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite into space and embarrassed the United States by besting it technologically. And it's a half-century since John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, drafted a clearly annoyed statement to reassure Americans that the sky wasn't falling (though Sputnik itself would fall three months later).

"What has happened involves no basic discovery and the value of a satellite to mankind will for a long time be highly problematical," he wrote. It would be a while before satellites started sending back images of Earth, but not a long while.

Now we have Google Earth, which lets you check out the car in your driveway, even on some particular day over the past few years, depending on where you are and how old the images (gathered from satellites and aerial photography) in the database are. The hysteria that Americans may have felt to be spied on from above, a half-century ago, has become simply a toy for bored browsers.

Google Earth is all about virtual tourism, a time-wasting way to remember places that you once lived or to visit places you'd like to see in the future. But pan out, and suddenly you see the same pendent world, floating in the vast darkness of space, surrounded by a thin blue haze of atmosphere. The artists who have made this such a user-friendly Web site have enhanced the frailty of our planet by surrounding it in a thin, brilliantly blue halo. There's no reason to do this in terms of the Web tool's ability to map places on Earth. It's a borrowed gesture, an artist's addition that harks back to the longer tradition of finding the Earth both extraordinarily beautiful and vulnerable.

Indeed, the view from above is very often enhanced. Colors are added and state boundary lines are drawn in. It is, like every other form of photography, a representation, and it's remarkable how quickly we've learned to read and internalize the very unnatural views satellite photography offers.

In the space of less than two generations -- and after millenniums of seeing our world limited by the horizons -- we've developed a sense of the Earth as a whole. It was a technological achievement, but it's had powerful emotional and ethical consequences. For every time we see the Earth from on high, as we've been seeing it during the disaster in California, it reminds us that we live in a time when not all problems can be kept at a distance. The satellite image, employed when the news gets ugly, is almost always a Cassandra image, a reminder of our collective responsibility to the only Home we have.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company