Get Pictures of the Earth Sent to Your Twitter Feed From a Million Miles Away

DSCOVR:EPIC's stream of planetary selfies.


For the last two weeks, I’ve looked down on a new image of the Earth taken from the heavens once every two hours or so. The pictures come by way of a British developer’s Twitter bot, DSCOVR:EPIC and the Deep Space Climate Observatory’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera. The camera, attached to a satellite about a million miles up, takes regular shots of the planets that are processed over a 36-hour period by NASA and then scraped by the bot, which posts them to the social networking site. I set up push notifications as an exercise in extreme perspective. My phone reminds me that, like any stress I feel, I myself am a rounding error.

When I decided to integrate DSCOVR:EPIC into my life, I wasn’t expecting much. Though there are apparently profound spiritual effects to space flight — the overview effect being the most notable example — there is limited evidence to support the conclusion that there are any effects to simulated flight. That said, satellite imagery does offer such a distinctive alternative to the horizon-oriented views of everyday life that I thought it might be an interesting exercise to hold the idea of my own smallness in my head while trying to live my normal life.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is perched at what’s known as a Lagrangian point, where the interaction between the gravity of the Sun and the gravity of the Earth freezes an object in place. DSCOVR is at Lagrangian point 1 (there are four others) a million miles in space. There, it’s a straight line from Sol to Earth. The camera snaps pictures at high noon of the planet as it rotates. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses DSCOVR to measure solar winds, and also allows researchers to monitor clouds, plant cover, and ozone on a global scale.

We’ve come quite a ways since Apollo 8’s Earthrise, and if seeing our lonely planet from afar doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch, it’s just a matter of desensitization. After two weeks of push notifications, the blinking green light on my phone went from novelty to irritation. The hope was that there would be a stage after that — that the imagery could become something closer to a mantra than an annoyance. This did not happen.

DSCOVR:EPIC’s Twitter bot does two things fantastically: Show pictures of the Earth and show pictures of the dark side of the moon illuminated by the sun. That second function only takes place given certain alignments, but is a rather thrilling departure from the typical imagery. As for that first function, it’s incredible and mind blowing and consistent and, all these years removed from the dawn of spaceflight, a bit banal.