From the ground, Earth looks like a boundless fertile plain that beckons to be explored and exploited.
But astronauts would beg and even plead to differ.
“People often say, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die.’ In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born,” Jim Lovell, an astronaut who flew on the Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 missions around the moon, previously told Business Insider. “God has really given us a stage […] on which we perform. And how that play turns out is up to us.”
Humanity has recorded photos of Earth from hundreds, thousands, millions, and even billions of miles away. The pictures help scientists study our dynamic world and understand what a habitable planet looks like from afar – a critical part of the search for alien worlds.
Most importantly, however, such images of Earth from space underscore our peculiar existence.
Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and popularizer of science, was born on November 9, 1934. He died on December 20, 1996, two years after he famously juxtaposed human history as a bloody struggle upon a mote of cosmic dust in his book “Pale Blue Dot.”
In honour of Sagan, take a moment to ponder these 27 arresting images of Earth that humankind has captured from outer space.
A few rare satellites enjoy a full view of Earth from thousands or even a million miles away.
Taken by: Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft
Date: April 9, 2015
NASA and NOAA created this composite image using photos taken by Suomi NPP, a weather satellite that orbits Earth 14 times a day. You can see the Joalane tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean (top right).
Their unending gaze helps us monitor the health of our world while catching rare alignments of the sun, moon, and Earth.
Taken by: Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 (GOES-16)
Date: January 15, 2017
GOES-16 launched on November 19, 2016, and orbits about 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) above Earth – a position called geostationary orbit. This allows the satellite to stay above the same spot and monitor changes in the atmosphere, ground, and ocean over time. The spacecraft regularly sees the moon and uses it to calibrate cameras.
They even catch the moon’s drifting shadow during solar eclipses.
Taken by: Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)
Date: March 9, 2016
Orbiting from a million miles away, NASA’s DSCOVR satellite always views this sunlit half of our planet. This allowed it to take 13 images of the moon’s shadow as it raced across Earth during the total solar eclipse of 2016. Together they make up one of the most complete views ever of the event.
When we venture deeper into space, Earth comes into spellbinding focus.
Taken by: Rosetta
Date: November 12, 2009
Our planet appears as a brilliant blue marble wrapped in a thin, nearly invisible veil of gas.
Taken by: Apollo 17’s crew
Date: December 7, 1972
The crew of the last crewed lunar mission, Apollo 17, took this “blue marble” photo of Earth – one of the most-reproduced images in history, though no one is certain which astronaut took it – from 28,000 miles away on their trip to the moon. Africa is visible at the top left of the image, and Antarctica on the bottom.
It drifts utterly alone in the blackness of space.
Taken by: Apollo 11’s crew
Date: July 20, 1969
Well, almost alone.
Taken by: DSCOVR
Date: July 16, 2015
About twice per year, the moon passes between DSCOVR and Earth – and we get a rare look at the moon’s far side. This series of images was taken between 3:50 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. EDT.
The moon — a cold, airless ball of rock 50 times smaller than Earth — is our largest and closest celestial friend.
Taken by: William Anders of Apollo 8’s crew
Date: December 24, 1968
NASA’s famous “Earthrise” image was taken as Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders swung around the moon. During a broadcast with Earth, Lovell said: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.”
The moon’s kinship with us is uncanny — it formed after a Mars-size planet smacked into a proto-Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.
Taken by: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)
Date: October 12, 2015
We know this because nations all around the world have sent people and robots there since the 1950s.
Taken by: Lunar Orbiter 1
Date: August 23, 1966
Lunar Orbiter 1 took this photo while scouting for places astronauts could land on the moon. Because 1960s technology couldn’t access the full depth of image data that NASA had recorded on analogue tapes, however, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project recently recovered this version of the famous image. The full-size version is large enough to print as a billboard.
Our lunar exploration is a technological conquest…
Taken by: Michael Collins of Apollo 11’s crew
Date: July 21, 1969
The “Eagle” lunar module of Apollo 11 as it returns from the surface of the moon.
As well as whetting of insatiable human curiosity …
Taken by: Chang’e 5-T1
Date: October 29, 2014
A rare view of the far side of the moon, taken by the China National Space Administration’s lunar probe. China has grown increasingly capable of exploring the solar system alongside NASA, ESA, Russia, India, and other space-faring nations. Its next moon mission: to return a lunar soil sample. If it succeeds, it will be the first collected since the last Apollo missions in the 1970s.
And a quest for the ultimate adventure.
Taken by: Apollo 10’s crew
Date: May 1969
The astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young, and Eugene Cernan took this video during Apollo 10, the second crewed mission to the moon – essentially a dry run for Apollo 11 (without the landing). Because the same side of the moon always faces our planet, such “Earthrise” views only happen when a spacecraft is moving.
The Earth never seems to be too distant from the moon.
Taken by: Clementine 1
The Clementine mission was launched on January 25, 1994, as part of a joint NASA-strategic defence initiative. Before spinning wildly out of control on May 7, 1994, it took this composite photo of Earth, as seen across the northern pole of the moon.
Source: NASA GSFC
But only a handful of nations have ever managed to launch probes to it.
Taken by: Longjiang-2
In May, China launched two small microsatellites, called Longjiang-1 and Longjiang-2, into orbit around the moon. One of the spacecraft took a stunning photo of Earth and the moon using a Saudi Arabian camera system. The microsatellites were part of a mission to launch a lunar relay satellite called Queqiao, which China will use to communicate with a rover that may be the first to explore the moon’s far side.
The farther out we send our spacecraft…
Taken by: Mariner 10
Date: November 3, 1973
A combination of two photos (one of Earth and one of the moon) taken by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft, which journeyed to Mercury, Venus, and the moon after launching from a repurposed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
The more peculiar our home looks…
Taken by: Galileo
Date: December 16, 1992
On its way to study Jupiter and its moons, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft took this composite image from 3.9 million miles away. The moon, which is about one-third as bright as Earth, is closer to the viewer in the foreground.
And the more lonely it seems.
Taken by: Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR)
Date: January 23, 1998
NASA’s asteroid-bound NEAR spacecraft took this two-part image of Earth and the moon from about 250,000 miles. Antarctica is visible in the south pole. NEAR eventually reached Asteroid 433 Eros, began orbiting the space rock, and deployed its Shoemaker lander spacecraft in 2001.
Most images don’t accurately portray the distance between Earth and the moon.
Taken by: Voyager 1
Date: September 18, 1977
Most photos of Earth and the moon are (artful) cut-and-paste composites, since they are so far away from one another. However, this is the first photo of both worlds ever taken in a single frame, when Voyager 1 was 7.25 million miles away – en route to its “grand tour” of the solar system.
Only by travelling hundreds of thousands or millions of miles away can we truly appreciate what the 239,000 miles between two worlds actually looks like.
Taken by: Mars Express
Date: July 3, 2003
It is a vast and empty rift.
Taken by: Mars Odyssey
Date: April 19, 2001
This infrared photo, taken from 2.2 million miles away, reveals the vast distance between Earth and the moon – 239,000 miles, about 30 times the diameter of Earth. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft recorded the image on its way to the Red Planet.
Even when paired together, the Earth-moon system looks insignificant from deep space.
Taken by: Juno
Date: August 26, 2011
NASA’s Juno spacecraft took this shot (and many others, which were made into a fantastic animation) during its nearly 5-year-long trip to Jupiter. The probe is documenting the gas giant in ways scientists had previously only dreamed of – including the first-ever images of the planet’s poles. When the mission wraps up, NASA will plunge Juno into the clouds of Jupiter to prevent contaminating nearby icy moons.
En route to Mars, our home world fuzzes into obscurity.
Taken by: Mars Cube One
Date: May 9, 2018
This picture was taken 621,371 miles away from Earth by a tiny satellite on its way to Mars. Scientists used the image to check the deployment of an antenna, but two familiar objects appear in the distance: Earth and its moon.
From the surface of Mars, Earth could just be another “moving star” in the night sky.
Taken by: Spirit Mars Exploration Rover
Date: March 9, 2004
About two months after a textbook landing on Mars, the Spirit rover gazed up at the sky to look for Earth – and found it as a tiny dot. NASA says this “is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon.” In this shot, Earth is roughly 161 million miles away.
Viewed from Saturn, Earth seems to vanish in the brilliant glow of the gas giant’s icy rings.
Taken by: Cassini
Date: September 15, 2006
NASA’s nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft took 165 different photos in the shadow of Saturn to make this backlit mosaic of the gas giant. Almost by accident, Earth is hiding in the image, off to the left. Although it looks like a bright speck in Saturn’s rings, the world is actually 928 million miles away.
It could easily be a speck of dirt in the sun.
Taken by: Cassini
Date: April 12, 2006
One of Cassini’s final photos of Earth was taking during a “fantastic dive” between Saturn and its rings. This image shows our planet and moon from 870 million miles away.
Billions of miles from Earth, as Sagan famously quipped, our world appears as a “pale blue dot” — a small and solitary orb where all of our triumphs and tragedies play out.
Taken by: Voyager 1
Date: February 14, 1990
Here’s part of Sagan’s speech about the image:
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan’s message is immutable: There is only one Earth, and so we must do everything in our power to protect it — mostly from ourselves.
Taken by: SELENE/Kaguya
Date: April 5, 2008
Japan’s moon-orbiting Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE) spacecraft, also known as Kaguya, took this video of Earth rising above the moon – sped up 1,000% – on the 40th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo.