Gore Dreams of Channel Earth

Vice President Al Gore wants to launch a small satellite to snap live pole-to-pole pictures of Earth that would be continuously available on television and the Internet. Gore said at a conference in Boston today that the satellite, which would cost tens of millions of dollars and paint the planet's portrait complete with hurricanes and large fires, would "awaken a new generation to the environment and educate millions of children." But some researchers say similarly snazzy images could be assembled from existing satellites for free, and in a couple of weeks.

The idea, Gore says, came to him in a dream about a month ago. And after a chat with NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, the plan seems to be on a fast track--NASA reportedly has six people working on it already. The satellite would sit 1 million miles toward the sun, where the gravitational tug of the sun and Earth cancel each other out, and stare back at the illuminated globe through an 8-inch telescope. Goldin has put a $20 million price tag on the project, but says it could cost more.

Not everyone shares Gore's vision. "The bottom line is you don't need a new satellite," says earth scientist John McElroy at the University of Texas, Arlington. The same image could be patched together from the geostationary satellites already in use for weather reports and from a couple of satellites that fly over the poles, McElroy says. "It makes a beautiful photo." The only holdup is getting the different countries that run them to coordinate their data, he says. Gore could accomplish that feat using his favorite medium, for far less than $20 million, McElroy suggests: "If the VP were to e-mail those governments, it's bound to impress the daylights out of them."