For Earth Day: Ten Stunning Views of Earth from Space Missions

Most people are probably familiar, even if not by name, with the iconic “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble view of Earth taken by Apollo astronauts on their journeys to the Moon. Apollo 8’s Earthrise, taken on Christmas Eve in 1968, is often referred to as one of the catalysts that led to the environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day. Since then, many other space missions have captured photographs of Earth on their way to their final destinations across the Solar System. In honour of Earth Day, let’s take a look at ten of the most stunning views these spaceships have given us:

Juno Says Goodbye to Earth on its Way to Jupiter

As it flew past Earth, Juno’s JunoCam got its first opportunity to image a colorful planet. In this photo, taken at 12:12 on October 9, 2013, the Sun glints from the ocean off the east coast of South America. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

The Juno mission headed off Earth on its 5-year-long journey to majestic Jupiter in August 2011. To get there though, it had to revisit its homeworld for a gravity assist in October 2013, during which time it snapped a view to say hello. The Junocam camera onboard the mission was designed as a public outreach tool, with the team calling on the general public to help process the imagery to create stunning results like the one above from Gerard Eichstädt. In fact, many of the amazing images of Jupiter you’ve likely seen from the mission were processed by amateur image processors! Check them out in the Junocam Image Processing Gallery.

Our Ocean World, Seen by OSIRIS-REx on its Way to the Asteroid Bennu

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid-sampling spacecraft captured this photo of Earth on Sept. 22, 2017, shortly after performing a speed-boosting flyby of our planet. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, similar to Juno, also needed a gravity assist to get to its final destination: The asteroid Bennu. During its 2017 flyby of Earth, it snapped this view over the Pacific Ocean. Australia is visible in the lower left of the frame.

Crescent Earth Viewed by Rosetta on the Way to Comet 67P

This photo of a crescent Earth was taken by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on Rosetta about two hours before closest approach during its second Earth flyby on November 13, 2007. Antarctica is at the bottom of the crescent. Credit: ESA/OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

We’re used to seeing the crescent Moon, but a crescent Earth is a rarity. This stunning view was captured by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission in 2007 during its second flyby of Earth to get a velocity boost toward Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, 43 million kilometres away from Earth’s orbit.

BepiColombo’s Flyby on the Way to Mercury

BepiColombo captured these images as it approached Earth for a gravity assist for its trip to Mercury on April 9, 2020. Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Space missions don’t just use gravity assist maneuvers to get velocity boosts toward the outer Solar System—they also use them to slow down to get to the inner Solar System! The European Space Agency’s BepiColombo flew past Earth last year on its circuitous route to Mercury. This method allows spacecraft to slow down without needing a ton of fuel to do so. Because BepiColombo will be going into orbit of Mercury, it has to slow down quite a bit in the grand scheme of things. It requires one Earth flyby, two Venus flybys, and a Mercury flyby before it can finally enter Mercurian orbit in 2025. During its only flyby of Earth, one of the Monitoring Cameras onboard captured images used to create the animation above.

Earth from Geostationary Orbit

Northrup Grumman’s MEV-1 satellite captured this view of Intelsat 901 on February 25, 2020. Credit: Northrup Grumman

Lots of satellites are in geostationary orbit around Earth. But last year, Northrup Grumman made history not only by performing the first docking of two commercial satellites to demonstrate on-orbit servicing capabilities; they also caught the first-ever view of a geostationary satellite with Earth visible in the background. The Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV)-1 was a mere 80 metres from Intelsat 901 when it took this photograph, before docking to raise Intelsat’s orbit. (Earlier this month, MEV-2 captured a similar view before docking with Intelsat 10–02.)

The First Single-Frame Image of the Earth and Moon, Taken by Voyager 1

The first single-frame image of the Earth-Moon system, taken by Voyager 1 from a distance of 7.25 million miles away from us. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From the vastness of space between Earth and Mars, Voyager 1 caught the first-ever view of Earth and our Moon in a single frame. The Voyager missions revealed the grandeur of our Solar System, and just how small our planet is in the grand scheme of the universe, in haunting beauty.

Earth and Moon Viewed from Mars Orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

This composite image of Earth and its moon, as seen from Mars, combines the best Earth image with the best Moon image from four sets of images acquired on Nov. 20, 2016, by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Uni. of Arizona

About 300 kilometres above the surface of Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been dutifully surveying the Red Planet since late 2006. A decade into its mission, the spacecraft spun its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera to look upward, back toward Earth. It managed to catch a tiny view of Earth and the Moon, hanging in the distance.

Earth from the Surface of Mars

Earth, imaged by the Curiosity rover on January 31, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Earth is easily visible in the blue twilight of Mars. This view was captured by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2014, gazing over the distant rim of Gale Crater 529 sols (martian days) after landing. If a human were to stand on the surface next to the rover, they would likely be able to spot the Moon as well—and that just blows my mind.

“The Day the Earth Smiled”

That blue dot marked with the arrow? That’s Earth, taken on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Cassini mission at Saturn returned no shortage of jaw-dropping images of the ringed planet and its veritable cavalcade of moons. But in 2013, it captured this breathtaking view of Earth, hanging in the vastness of space nearly 1.5 billion kilometres away. In its more than 13 years orbiting Saturn before the mission was brought to an end, it this was the only wide-angle view where Earth was visible. The gossamer blue band is Saturn’s E-ring, created from material spewing out of the south polar geysers of its moon Enceladus.

The Voyager Family Portrait

The Solar System “family portrait” is the final series of 60 images captured by NASA’s Voyager 1 that show six of our solar system’s planets. It remains the first and only time — so far — a spacecraft has attempted to photograph our home solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No entry of this sort would be complete without the iconic “Voyager Family Portrait,” showcasing all of the planets in our Solar System as the little points of light they are to the rest of the universe. This view famously inspired astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot,” and undoubtedly many others.

Our planet is small, the life on it somehow simultaneously fragile yet resilient, and—as far as we can tell right now—entirely unique in this massive universe. For that reason alone, we should work to protect it, because there’s no place like this place.

Professional Martian. PhD Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views = my own.

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