Humans existed on Earth for many thousands of years before they knew what their home planet looked like from space. Even in the early years of the space program, photographing the planet was an afterthought, as the primary mission was just to get astronauts into orbit and bring them back alive. In the half century since then, humans have made up for lost time, capturing more than 1 million images of the Earth as seen from space. Here are 10 of the most historic and/or unusual photos and videos from that vast collection.
10. The Blue Marble
One of the most widely distributed photographs in history, this image was dubbed the “Blue Marble” for obvious reasons. The crew of Apollo 17 snapped the photo on Dec. 7, 1972, about five hours after launch at a distance of 45,000 kilometers from Earth. As mission commander Eugene Cernan noted at the time: “We’re not the first to discover this, but we’d like to confirm, from the crew of America, that the world is round.” The obvious question: Why weren’t previous Apollo missions able to produce similar, perfectly lit, full-Earth images? It’s all about timing and position. Not only was the spacecraft in the right position, pointed the right direction, but the sun is behind the spacecraft, illuminating the planet. Although the cloud cover makes it tough to tell, Africa is the continent featured in the image, with the island of Madagascar in the center of the photo. On a side note, there has been much debate through the years concerning which astronaut actually took the photo.
9. Blue Marble Revisited
NASA released this image in 2002, a composite of images taken over a four-month period by NASA’s Terra satellite. The agency billed the photo, and an accompanying shot of the Eastern Hemisphere, as the most detailed true-color image of the Earth’s surface to date. The maximum resolution is one kilometer per pixel.
8. International Space Station Time-Lapse Video
In November 2011, NASA released this series of time-lapse photos taken by the crew aboard the International Space Station. The green glows seen at the top and bottom of the globe are the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis, better known as the Northern and Southern Lights, respectively.
7. First TV Image From Space
Combine two relatively primitive technologies, space travel and television cameras, and this is the result, which NASA credits as the first television image of the Earth taken from space. The satellite TIROS-1 captured the video on April 1, 1960.
6. Earth at Night
This famous image is a composite of hundreds of nighttime images taken by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program in 1994 and 1995. More images from that program are available on the NASA website.
5. John Glenn Photos
John Glenn took the first Earth photos shot by a human on his historic orbital flight aboard Friendship 7 in 1962. As NASA notes on its website, photography on that mission was not a priority. Before his flight, Glenn visited a drugstore and purchased an Ansco 35mm camera, which was modified so he could use it while wearing his spacesuit.
4. Blue Marble Next Generation
Advances in computer technology have taken the digital manipulation of photos to another level, and it goes without saying NASA has some of the best computers, software and photo technicians on the planet. One of the results of that confluence of technology and talent is this 2004 image from the Blue Marble Next Generation project. It’s a digital composite of images for each month of 2004, revealing the true color of the Earth’s surface, with features such as clouds edited out.
3. First Photo Of Earth From Space
It’s not much to look at today, but this photo had scientists shouting with glee at the time. Taken Oct. 24, 1946 by a camera aboard a V-2 rocket launched by the U.S. from White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico, this is credited as the first photo taken from space. The photo was taken at an altitude of about 65 miles. The 35-millimeter motion picture camera that took the image was destroyed when the rocket crashed back to Earth at more than 300 mph. The film, however, was protected in a steel cocoon. As Air & Space magazine noted in a story several years ago, scientists “were jumping up and down like kids,” with excitement when they found the film. “When they first projected [the photos] onto the screen, the scientists just went nuts.”
2. Pale Blue Dot
Want to feel insignificant? Take a look at this image of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 probe in 1990, at a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth. Earth, the size of 0.12 pixel in the image, is circled, right in the middle of one of the light rays from the Sun. The image so moved astronomer Carl Sagan that he titled one of his books, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Sagan wrote, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, 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.” Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is still transmitting information back to Earth, at a distance of more than 11 billion miles.
1. Earth Rise
As we’ve detailed elsewhere on this site, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took one of the most iconic images in human history from lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968. It almost never happened, as Anders had to scramble to find film, after mission commander Frank Borman noted, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.” That statement sparked a tense yet hilarious conversation (read the brief NASA transcript here) among Borman, Anders and James Lovell as the men raced to capture the moment on film. By the way, the Apollo 8 crew is also credited with taking the first photo of the whole Earth, a partially eclipsed image that can be viewed in high resolution on the NASA website.
(Note: NASA maintains a vast collection of Earth photographs through its Gateway to Earth Photography program.)