Happy Earth Day, 2011 Edition!

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." -Bill Anders, Apollo 8 Astronaut

This Earth Day, I think -- for anyone interested in space, astronomy, or the Universe -- gives us perhaps the best opportunity to look back on our planet as we understand it now, having traveled so far away from it.

It was only, believe it or not, back in the 1940s that we first photographed our planet from high enough up to directly observe that, in fact, the Earth is curved!

The above image, from 1948 in space over New Mexico, was the first panorama ever taken from space. Compare that to a recent experiment done by a group of students from MIT for $150, where they managed to capture this photo.

Of course, technology has advanced quite a bit over the last 60 years, so that's no surprise. But since we've first started our voyages into space, looking back at our world helps remind us how small and yet how fortunate we are to have our world.

Let's use this opportunity to take a look at some of the greatest views of Earth ever taken.

Bill Anders, the author of the quote atop the page, uttered those famous words as his Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the Moon: the first manned craft to do so. As they emerged from the night side of the Moon for the third time, they were greeted by the sight of the Earth rising over the limb of the Moon. The above photo, Earthrise, has inspired the world ever since.

But we've gone a lot farther than just the Moon; we've sent things to the farthest reaches of the Solar System! It was the Voyager spacecrafts that were the first to travel to those outermost reaches, but every once in a while, they remembered to look back. In 1977, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to turn around and photograph the Earth and Moon together, showing the same illuminated face as one another, above.

And below, you might think, is a much blurrier version of the same thing.

Believe it or not, this is the first photo of Earth -- shot in 2003 -- taken from Mars! NASA's Mars Global Surveyor looked back a hundred-million kilometers, and photographed the Earth and Moon together, above.

But we don't just go out. Recently, in fact, we've gone in, to the innermost part of our Solar System. And when the Messenger Mission, from the same orbit as the planet Mercury, looked back at Earth, what did it see?

The Earth and Moon, full and bright, as outer planets always appear when viewed from one so much closer to the Sun. Absolutely breathtaking, how small and insignificant we appear even from within our Solar System.

And that brings us to my favorite photo of Earth...

Captured by Cassini, here are the great rings of Saturn. Take a look at a faint, distant dot just outside the main rings, on the right side of the photograph. It's blown-up in the upper-left-hand corner. That's the Earth, as photographed from Saturn! Looking less significant than even one of Saturn's minor moons, the "fuzzball" off to one side is actually our Moon, the cause of our tides and our greatest light in the night sky.

Take a moment, today, to appreciate the fragility of our world, and to think about -- despite its cosmic insignificance -- its great significance to us. Take care of it. It's the only one we've got.

And happy Earth day to one and all!


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No Pale Blue Dot?

Beautiful shots. I especially like the "from Mars" one.

By Dale Sheldon-Hess (not verified) on 22 Apr 2011 #permalink

Oh I love the shot from Mercury! The thought just never occurred to me that Earth would be so bright!

But don't expect Earthrise from a moonbase - because the Earth will always be in (roughly) the same place in the sky, for a given location on the Moon.

Happy Earth Day 2011.

I'm actually old enough to remeber Earthrise on the front page of the newspaper, it was also the first time I had seen a coloured picture in a newspaper. It was hard to imagine an image more awe inspiring until Sagan and Voyager showed us the Earth as a "mote of dust in a sunbeam". To this day I cannot look at a sunbeam without thinking about our place in the universe.

I´m going to print these photos with your text (+url) and display them in the corridor of the toilets of my internetcafe.

Love the photo gallery sequence from 1948 to the rings of Saturn circa 2010. I have read somewhere that the blueness of the Apollo 8 photo was enhanced by NASA to give added oomph to the occasion. Do you have any thoughts on that ? Also do you have a web site or source for that cool V2 picture from the White Sands days ? Just found your site today after a linkfest started from the LHC Higgs rumour. Thanks.

Dear Ethan Siegel,

This article is very cool and great for earth day. The photos are well shot and the article is well written. What else could reserch on the Earth tell us that we already don't know? Anyways thank you for posting the article.

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Happy Earth Day, 2011 Edition!

I think these people have a good view on what is being said. I canât believe that the world is curved. I just donât think I would have thought that. Technology has advanced in the last 60 years amazing now we can go everywhere and do everything. Earth day is so important cause people need to realize that we need it keep good care of this earth because the more we donât treat it like we care the more and more it is going to fade away. But we've gone a lot farther than just the Moon; we've sent things to the farthest reaches of the Solar System. I think this article was so interesting and very informational thank you for sharing your post.

Dear Ethan,

This was a really amazing article. I really enjoyed the pictures. What draws me into articles are the pictures, and you certainly did a good job. I'm also curious about if NASA enhanced the coloring of the Apollo 8 photo. Either way it's a great photo and very breath taking! Thanks for sharing these photos with us on Earth Day, and taking time to do this. Great job!(:

I really like reading about space and the Earth, all that stuff interests me! I think more people should treat our Earth with more respect on Earth Day. I donât want to see this Earth fall to nothing. I love seeing spaces pictures too! This post is very well written and I love it!

These pictures are beautiful! Earth Day is a big day and most people in our everyday lives don't realize that. Lots of us don't even know when it is. I love the mixture between pictures and words in this post it makes it seem interesting. Itâs just very well written and thatâs a lot coming from a teenager that never reads more then a text message.

i love how you want to make Earth Day better. Earth Day is a wounderful time to help our planet! I love the pictures you have put on here and they look beautiful. I realy like reading about it. People should never through trash on the ground. Its not healthy for our planet.

This blog really inspiring to me, also great choice of topic for earth day . I find it interesting how you can see Earth in through Saturnâs rings. But what Iâm wondering is why is the picture taken from Mars? Other then that great job on the photographs and blog.

This blog really inspiring to me, also great choice of topic for earth day . I find it interesting how you can see Earth in through Saturnâs rings. But what Iâm wondering is the picture taken from Mars blurry? Other then that great job on the photographs and blog.

Ethan, This is an excellent article... one to keep and share forever. In fact, i just did... nearly 2 years after you wrote it... and will again, and again. cheers+stars!

By Audrey Fischer (not verified) on 17 Jan 2013 #permalink

Well OK in 2015 it's more relevant than ever. Beautiful pictures, great writing and presentation. Please all, let's take care of this beautiful fragile planet. It's all we've got and very few people seem to care !!

By Tony Pitout (not verified) on 26 Mar 2015 #permalink