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Photo Favorites: Greatest Photos of Earth

February 23rd, 2011

"Blue Marble" by Apollo 17 crew. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. December 7, 1972

Sometimes after a rough week, a round night or seeing your beloved Commodores choke against the Volunteers, you need a little reminder to keep things in perspective. One easy way to do so is by revisiting the mastery of photography that reveals the wonders of the universe. While the Hubble images are often the most powerfully beautiful and the images of Jovian moons from Galileo or Saturnial satellites (particularly Enceladus) by Cassini are awe inspiring, there’s nothing quite like a few images of this world we call home to keep one grounded.

After the jump, I’ve linked three of my favorites and one which I wasn’t previously aware of, posted in chronological order. You’ll likely want to click on at least the first three images to get a bigger view, otherwise you might just miss out on spotting Earth altogether.

Click on through to keep reading.

“In Saturn’s Shadow” is perhaps the most truly glorious photo ever taken. Taken by the Cassini Probe four and a half years ago, it was an opportunistic shutter capture of an Saturnial eclipse of Sol. The elegance and beauty in the raw image is only amplified by a bit of toying with the color contrast by Carolyn Porco’s imaging team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In the enhanced version of the image, you can more clearly see that which is also visible in the raw version. Sitting quietly to the left of Saturn on the interior portion of the more dimly illuminated G-ring (look just left of the seemingly more solid E-ring), you see a single bright object. While one might mistake it easily for the brilliantly bright Enceladus, that is, in fact, Earth.

Shimmering and bathed in light, in contrast to the semi-shrouded dark side of Saturn, we appear situated in the rings of that planet. With Cassini shooting the image from 1.3 billion kilometers (930 million miles) away from Earth, the rings themselves a constant reminder of the power of gravity and astrophysics, themselves representing the torn asunder remains of past satellites and comets that fell inside the termination point of Saturnial orbit. Fear not, though, as we’re not quite ready or likely to meet the same fate.

“In Saturn’s Shadow” NASA Photo Page.

"In Saturn's Shadow" by Cassini Orbiter. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. September 15, 2006.

I was first introduced to both the raw and enhanced versions of the image by Ms. Porco’s TED Talk, which I linked to back here. You likely need to click the photos to embiggen them and be able to really see Earth.

Color Contrast Exaggeration of "In Saturn's Shadow" by Cassini Orbiter. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Space Science Institute. September 15, 2006, Released October 11, 2006.

The next image image is perhaps the most famous shown here. In 1990 as Voyager I was passing beyond Neptune, Carl Sagan is said to have come up with the idea of flipping the spacecraft around so it would point back home as it exited beyond the solar system’s last planet (yes, Pluto is no longer a planet, folks). Opening up it’s frame for several long exposures, Voyager I captured this image, showing a very pale, blue dot in the prism of some residual color (look in the right, somewhat burnt orange stream of light). The image was captured at more than 6 astronomical units from Earth (roughly averaging a distance of 6.05 billion kilometers or 3.75 billion miles.

Much as the photo of the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” shown below was given credit for awakening environmentalism, “Pale Blue Dot” is credited with reminding us of how truly minimal our place in the universe is. In many ways, it should remind one of the need to individually and collectively make a mark in what one does in life.

“Pale Blue Dot” NASA Photo Page.

"Pale Blue Dot" by the Voyager I Spacecraft. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. February 14, 1990 to June 6, 1990.

As noted above, there was perhaps no more resonant image of Earth than the live broadcast television images taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they headed home with one last Earthrise from the Moon. The event took place on Christmas Eve and the astronauts addressed the nation — I won’t comment on the fact that they read passages of Genesis while doing so, other than to note that I prefer Yuri Gargarin’s purported statement upon entering orbit — as they packed up for the return flight. This is perhaps one of the most celebrated images in human history and it is deservedly so. It really does frame the fragility of our planet, hanging up there above the barren and dead Moon. It most certainly competes with the 1972 “Blue Marble” image (the first captioned image at the top of the post) for that title.

Earthrise” NASA Photo Page.

"Earthrise" by Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, Apollo 8. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Dec. 24, 1968

The final image is one I actually didn’t really know about before writing on the first few. One imagines the penultimate photo in this gallery as the first image of Earthrise, but the below picture preceded it by a good bit. It was taken during the mission of the Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966 and was the first image of home from the vicinity of the Moon. Obviously, it’s a good bit less detailed and refined than some of the later shots, but brilliant nonetheless. Both “Earthrise” and “First View of Earth from Moon”, being shot from the Moon, would have been taken at between 365,000 and 405,000 kilometers (227,000 to 251,000 miles).

“First View of Earth from Moon” NASA Photo Page.

"First View of Earth from Moon" by Lunar Orbiter 1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. August 23, 1966.

For more great images, both the JPL Website and the JPL Flickr Stream are great resources.

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