Last week the Phoenix Lander successfully descended onto Martian soil. Now I’m going to imagine that I live in the early 1900’s and read that sentence again: Last week the Phoenix Lander successfully descended onto Martian soil.
We just sent something to another planet 422 million miles away. I can’t even begin to comprehend that distance. After Phoenix’s 9-month journey through the lonely vacuum of space, it began it’s risky descent, which it’s NASA creators called the “the seven minutes of terror.”
To be honest, it didn’t hit me how incredible an achievement this was until I saw a grainy, black and white photograph of Phoenix entering the Martian atmosphere, taken by a camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It’s the first time that a spacecraft has photographed another spacecraft descending onto a planetary body.
Suddenly it occurred to me how strange, how utterly alien our universe is.
The photograph shows a tiny white streak on a vast, dark backdrop of an unknown landscape. This small white streak holds so much potential. It’s a tool for us to make what little sense we can of the space surrounding us. It’s significant to us, but so incredibly insignificant when compared to the desert planet it approaches. Pull back further across the solar system, and it begins to look like a mere symbolic gesture when compared to what we do not yet know and what we may never understand about the universe.
Somehow, this doesn’t bother me – this vast expanse of infinity, this great unknown. I actually find it liberating. It puts things into perspective, and the things that bother me day to day seem trivial. Even the larger issues – money, career – don’t seem to matter. The universe is more vast than we can ever imagine, and we make up hardly an atom in its geography. It’s in that scheme of things that only life’s grandest concepts take precedence: Knowledge. Mercy.
We are just specks. We are mere streaks.
And I don’t mind that so much.