Portraits of the Earth-Moon System

Article produced by ALAN TAYLOR and published in TheAtlantic the 24th of April 2017

The Earth and its moon almost form a binary planet system. The moon is enormous—relative to the size of its planet—compared with the rest of the solar system. Since the 1960s, spacecraft and astronauts have been able to “step back” far enough to capture combined portraits of the Earth and its moon, separated by some 240,000 miles. Gathered below are some of the best of these portraits, some from as far away as 100 million miles.

The Earth straddling the limb of the moon, as seen from above Compton crater by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 12, 2015. The large tan area in the upper right is the Sahara desert, and just beyond is Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left.

An image of Earth and the moon, acquired on October 3, 2007, by the HiRISE camera orbiting Mars on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. At the time the image was taken, Earth was 142 million kilometers (88 million miles) from Mars. The phase angle is 98 degrees, which means that less than half of the disk of the Earth and the disk of the moon have direct illumination. We could image Earth and moon at full disk illumination only when they are on the opposite side of the sun from Mars, but then the range would be much greater and the image would show less detail.

Observing the moon from Earth orbit, aboard the International Space Station over the western Atlantic, on September 26, 2007.

A crew member aboard the International Space Station took this image of the northern Mediterranean Sea, centered on the island of Elba, with city lights of the Italian towns of Piombino and Punta Ala image right. Shooting towards the reflection of the moon on the sea surface, moonglint reveals the highly complex patterns on the sea surface—in the night equivalent of sunglint. The strongest reflection is near the center of the moon’s disc, which brightens the sea surface around the island of Elba. But in the complex patterns seen from space, the dark areas of the sea surface even make the islands like Elba, Montecristo (lower left) and Pianosa (left) more difficult to see. Photographed on October 17, 2013.

Long before man journeyed to the moon and looked back at the tiny, fragile planet that houses humanity, remote orbiters were sending back pictures of home. Sent to scope out potential landing sites on the moon, NASA’s series of five Lunar Orbiters also sent back the earliest views of Earth from another celestial body. This image, taken in 1966 by Lunar Orbiter 1, is among the first views of Earth from the moon. When the orbiter sent back the data in 1966, the technology did not exist to produce a full-resolution image. For decades, the image existed as a grainy black-and-white photo. More than forty years later, NASA recreated the image from the original data, producing for the first time a high-resolution view of the moon and Earth from the Lunar Orbiter Missions. The image was released on November 13, 2008.

Earth and the far side of the moon on July 5, 2016, also featuring Typhoon Nepartak over the Pacific Ocean, imaged by NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, about 1.5 million km (930,000 mi) from Earth,.

Young people look at the rare sight of the setting sun appearing as crescent as the moon moves in alignment between the Sun and the Earth during a partial solar eclipse, as seen from Manila Bay on January 26, 2009.

Earth viewed over the lunar horizon, as seen from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s SELENE lunar orbiter, on October 7, 2016.

On December 16, 1992, 8 days after its encounter with Earth, the Galileo spacecraft looked back from a distance of about 6.2 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) to capture this remarkable view of the moon in orbit about Earth. The moon is in the foreground; its orbital path is from left to right. Brightly colored Earth contrasts strongly with the moon, which reacts only about one-third as much sunlight as our world.

This distorted view of a full moon seen through the Earth’s atmosphere was photographed by an Expedition 14 crew member aboard the International Space Station on December 4, 2006. Visible at bottom center, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain massif in southwestern China.

In the lower left portion of this image, the Earth can be seen, as well as the much smaller moon to Earth’s right, on May 6, 2010. When the MESSENGER spacecraft took this image, a distance of 183 million kilometers (114 million miles) separated the spacecraft and Earth. To provide context for this distance, the average separation between the Earth and the Sun is about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles). Though it is a beautiful, thought-provoking picture, viewing our planet from far away was not the main reason that the mission team planned the collection of this image. Instead, this image was acquired as part of MESSENGER’s campaign to search for vulcanoids, small rocky objects that have been postulated to exist in orbits between Mercury and the Sun.

On September 13, 2015, as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, kept up its constant watch on the sun, its view was photobombed not once, but twice. Just as the moon came into SDO’s field of view on a path to cross the sun, Earth entered the picture, blocking SDO’s view completely. When SDO’s orbit finally emerged from behind Earth, the moon was just completing its journey across the sun’s face. Earth’s outline looks fuzzy, while the moon’s is crystal-clear. This is because-while the planet itself completely blocks the sun’s light-Earth’s atmosphere is an incomplete barrier, blocking different amounts of light at different altitudes.

Crowds look on as the super moon rises behind the Fremantle War Memorial at Monument Hill on November 14, 2016 in Fremantle, Australia.

Texas at night. This wide-angle, nighttime image was taken by astronauts looking from the International Space Station out southeastward over the Gulf of Mexico on February 11, 2015. Moonlight reflects diffusely off the waters of the gulf (image center left) making the largest illuminated area in the image. The sharp edge of light patterns of coastal cities trace out the long curve of the gulf shoreline¡ªfrom New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River, to Houston (both image left), to Brownsville (image center) in the westernmost gulf.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) ascent stage, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. onboard, is photographed from the Command and Services Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit on July 21, 1969. This view is looking west with the Earth rising above the lunar horizon.

Eclipsed by the silhouetted horizon of the moon, the crescent Earth appears in the shape of a pair of horns in this unusual Apollo 17 photograph made on December 19, 1972. The three astronauts–Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans and Harrison H. Schmitt–were just about to begin their journey homeward following the successful lunar landing phase of their mission.

The moon, viewed from the International Space Station, over a cloudy western Pacific Ocean, on August 5, 2003.

This picture of a crescent-shaped Earth and Moon was recorded on September 18, 1977, by NASA’s Voyager 1 when it was 7.25 million miles (11.66 million kilometers) from Earth. The moon is at the top of the picture and beyond the Earth as viewed by Voyager. In the picture are eastern Asia, the western Pacific Ocean and part of the Arctic. Voyager 1 was directly above Mt. Everest (on the night side of the planet at 25 degrees north latitude) when the picture was taken.

An Indian man rides a horse past people watching the ‘supermoon’ rise at Marina Beach in Chennai on November 14, 2016.

Backdropped by the blackness of space and Earth’s horizon, the Harmony node in Space Shuttle Discovery’s payload bay, vertical stabilizer and orbital maneuvering system pods are featured in this image photographed by a STS-120 crewmember on October 24, 2007. Earth’s moon is also visible at center.

This July 1969 view from the Apollo 11 spacecraft shows the Earth rising above the moon’s horizon. The lunar terrain pictured is in the area of Smyth’s Sea on the nearside.


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