60 Years Ago We Saw Earth From Space for the First Time — Here’s How We See It Now (Video)
From “Earthrise” to “Blue Marble,” here are some of the finest out-of-this-world photographs of Earth.
Sixty years ago on Aug. 7, 1959, the Explorer 6 satellite sent back crude TV images of Earth from space. Since then there have been landmark moments in Earth photography, from the famous “Earthrise,” “Eagle’s Return” (above) and “Blue Marble” shot by NASA’s Apollo astronauts to the more recent “Pale Blue Dot”.
Explorer 6 satellite
It may have been the first to transmit pictures of Earth via satellite, but Explorer 6’s images of Earth from space are definitely not the best. Showing a sunlit area of the Pacific Ocean and its cloud cover, it was taken when the satellite was 17,000 miles above Earth on Aug. 14, 1959, a week after it had been launched. Luckily, things moved on pretty quick.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1968, and the first humans are orbiting the Moon. NASA’s Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders see the far side of the Moon. Anders took the first pictures taken of the Earth from the Moon, including the famous “Earthrise” that arguably kick-started the environmental movement. “Apollo 8 will probably be remembered as much for Bill's picture as anything because it shows the fragility of our Earth, the beauty of the Earth, and just how so insignificantly small we are in the Universe,” Borman told Travel + Leisure. “It was the beginning of the realization that we need to take care of it.” Though far less impressive, the first photo of Earth from the Moon was actually taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on Aug 23, 1966.
The first photograph of Earth as a whole was taken on Dec. 7, 1972 by scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, a member of the Apollo 17 crew on their way to complete NASA’s final mission to land on the Moon. Presented here upside down (the astronauts actually saw Antarctica on top), “Blue Marble” was only possible because Apollo 17 had the sun behind them, and it was close to summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Since Apollo 17 was the last crewed mission to the Moon, or anywhere else beyond low Earth orbit, it’s not been possible since then for a human to repeat this image of a whole Earth. However, a NASA satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory now streams a “Blue Marble” image. Forty years after the original, NASA published “Blue Marble 2012” in tribute, but also “Black Marble” showing light pollution.
“Pale Blue Dot”
American astronomer Carl Sagan was trying to make a point when, on Feb. 14, 1990, he persuaded NASA to turn the cameras of Voyager 1 back towards the solar system it was rapidly leaving. Although it had completed its incredible mission to photograph Saturn and Jupiter, and their moons, it managed to capture Earth as a single pixel in the center of scattered light rays (it’s towards the bottom in this image, slightly left of center). “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,” wrote Sagen. “Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there––on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Voyager 1 was 3.7 billion miles away from Earth at the time. Now it’s 13 billion miles distant, and firmly in interstellar space.
“The Day the Earth Smiled”
In some ways an update on the “Pale Blue Dot” image, at first glance, “The Day the Earth Smiled” doesn’t appear to be of Earth at all, but the ringed planet Saturn. Shot by NASA’s space probe Cassini on July 19, 2013, and conceived by planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, the image was taken while Saturn was eclipsing the Sun, and includes Saturn and its rings, seven of its moons, and Venus, Mars and Earth (bottom, right) in the background. On the day it was taken people were asked to reflect on their place in the cosmos, and look up.