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Photos: Satellite images put Earth in amazing perspective

Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNNUpdated 16th October 2016
(CNN) — On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 made the first manned mission to the moon. Live broadcasting from the spacecraft was the three-man crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, and it was on that day that their journey led them to an unexpected sight.
"Oh my God, look at that picture over there!" Anders said at the time. "There's the Earth comin' up. Wow, is that pretty!"
About 45 years after Anders snapped his one-of-a-kind "Earthrise" photograph -- showing us our marble-like planet rising from behind the moon -- a man named Benjamin Grant would see an unexpected sight as well.
On December 14, 2013, Grant was preparing a talk about satellites for the space club he set up at his workplace. He went on a mapping program and searched for some images. On a whim, he typed in "Earth," hoping to find a picture of the entire planet. But unlike the Apollo 8 crew, Grant's one-man mission led him not to Earth, but to Earth, Texas.

'I had no idea what I was seeing'

Grant_Ben© Jessica Malafouris
Benjamin Grant
Courtesy Penguin Random House
"What I saw when I clicked 'Enter' was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," Grant said, adding that his screen filled up with a bunch of circles. "I am huge fan of abstract art and art history and I had never seen anything like that before. But it was beautiful and it was stunning and I had no idea what I was seeing."
Turns out, those circular hues of green and brown were rows of rotating sprinklers used for a type of agricultural farming known as pivot irrigation.
"I soon enough became obsessed with looking for these new patterns, these new stories to tell using this perspective," Grant said.
Grant's upcoming book, "Overview: A New Perspective of Earth," contains more than 200 satellite images, showing us that within the blues and greens and whites of the Earth exists a kaleidoscope of colors and places.
"Overview" stems from the "Overview Effect," a term coined by science writer Frank White. It refers to the sort of shift in perspective that various astronauts and cosmonauts have said they experienced during spaceflight, such as when they view Earth while in orbit.
"That idea was very much on my mind and very inspirational for me, which really is the reason I typed in 'Earth' into the search bar in the first place," Grant said. "That idea of inspiring this new perspective or showing people the planet in a way they've never seen before has been at the core of the project from the very beginning, and is really what I hope to inspire with the book and with the work that I'm doing."
Grant uses satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, and every creation in "Overview" has been stitched together using various tiles of satellite imagery. One of the major considerations when deciding what to create has to do with aesthetic appeal.

Painstaking review

"I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the best way or the most aesthetic way to present the images," he said. "When I get the raw imagery from the satellite company, it doesn't look anything like the images you see in the book. I take the time to compose it in whatever way I think is most alluring or most mesmerizing."
Composing the images in a way that draws people in is important because it opens a window into people's minds, the former design consultant says. They become more inquisitive and interested in what they're seeing.
"I think if I do a good job composing an image, that will lead someone to ask questions and ask me, 'What is it?' rather than making it obvious or immediately clear what it is," Grant said. "That's an important piece of these images. It's really tapping into the mystery or to the power of the 'Overview Effect' and what we can get from looking at the world in this way."
But there's more than meets the eye. Grant's book isn't just a collection of pretty pictures, it's an insightful experience into the state of our planet. The story precedes the beauty; it's only after Grant researches a question -- such as, "Where are the largest or most well-known solar panel facilities?" -- that the process of stitching together an image begins.
"If you're looking at these places on the ground, you can't understand the full scale of what's going on; you can't necessarily see all of the processes that are in place," Grant said. "As we look to the future and look to create a more sustainable planet, that will not just happen spontaneously. I think people need the knowledge and the awareness to know what's going on before they start acting in service of the planet."
"Overview" is divided into nine major parts: Where We ... Harvest. Extract. Power. Live. Move. Design. Play. Waste. Are Not. Each part not only shows, but tells us something about the planet we call home.
In the "Where We Harvest" section, Grant highlights the way we rely on our environment to cultivate plants and raise animals. It's here where the image of the tulips in Lisse, Netherlands -- seen in photo No. 3 in the gallery above -- makes a stunning appearance.
"The people who are planting those tulips ... are just kind of going about their business and making sure those flowers are as beautiful as possible and bloom as well as possible," he said. "That is going on, but at the same time that creates this unbelievable tapestry of color and control and design from above and it's just magnificent."
And in "Where We Design," one of the major focuses is on urban planning, where Grant takes us on a journey into how the layout of cities affects everything from the way we interact with one another to the way we transport ourselves and move about.
"We're going to need smart, well-designed, sustainable cities in the future as more of us move into urban centers and have to live in cities that work well for us," Grant said. "This book could also be showing a problem, but in another perspective, it could also be presenting solutions or helping people understand what works well and what we can do to create a better and smarter, safer, world for us in the future."
Mont Saint-Michel in photo No. 9, off the coast of Normandy, France, is included in "Where We Design." In the image we see a monastery surrounded by water, which Grant writes is only accessible to pilgrims during low tide.

'Ingenuity of farming'

"You have again this ingenuity of farming and agriculture that I'm sure has been going on there for centuries, as well as the history of the architecture of the building that was constructed there," he said. "It's just phenomenal to see."
Seeing the Earth from this perspective is truly a unique experience. Grant notes how just a little more than 550 humans, out of the billions who have ever existed, have been to space and have had the opportunity to see our planet in a whole new light.
"Through the project, I've been lucky enough to meet a number of astronauts and discuss the perspective in the images with them," he said. "It was great to hear many of them say it reminded them of the feeling they had when they were in the International Space Station when they were in lowered orbit."
But just because so few have been to outer space, doesn't mean there isn't an interest in gaining a new perspective of our home. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. And while it sounds cool for sure, what it all comes down to is an intense desire and need to learn about and understand our home from a perspective that just so happens to be as intellectually profound as it is aesthetically profound.
"The astronauts who have seen the Earth from outer space and seen the Earth as a whole get a new perspective of what our planet looks like, how fragile it is, how amazing it is, how interconnected we are," Grant said. "And then when we tap into that perspective and we look at our own planet and we see what we're doing, we have a new way of looking at ourselves. We have a new way of looking at our species and what's going on, and a new story to tell about the state of our planet and what we have to do to protect it."