This might look like your typical space photo, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. This stunning image of the Apollo 15 landing site wasn’t taken by an optical instrument, such as a camera, but rather by a radar telescope that bounced radio waves off the surface of the moon.
In the image, we can see Hadley Rille, the meandering channel that runs across the middle. It was formed millions of years ago by collapsing lava tubes during a time when the moon was still volcanically active. The circular feature pictured is, you’ve guessed it, a crater known as Hadley C, measuring 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) in diameter.
What’s amazing about this photo is its astonishing resolution, which can resolve objects as small as 5 meters across from 384,000 kilometers (239,000 miles) away.
Because Earth has a thick atmosphere and an active weather system, it can be challenging to image things with a normal optical telescope. For this reason, scientists typically position their telescopes at high-altitude locations, perched on a mountain. A fine example is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope facility that sits on top of a 5,000m-high plateau in Chile.
But if you use radio waves, the interference is minimal. For the past two years, scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in the U.S. have been experimenting with radio imaging technology that can take astronomical snapshots from Earth. The fruit of their labor is the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia — the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.
This telescope is fitted with a powerful transmitter that beamed radio waves onto the Apollo 15 landing site region. The reflected waves that bounced off the lunar surface were detected by NRAO’s continent-wide Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). This pattern was decoded in order to construct a high-resolution image of the site — and the results speak for themselves.
What’s amazing is that we’re likely seeing just the tip of the iceberg of what this kind of technology can do. The researchers plan to scale up this proof-of-concept with a much more powerful transmitter that will allow them to image small objects passing by Earth or even as far into the solar system as Jupiter’s moons.
“The planned system will be a leap forward in radar science, allowing access to never before seen features of the Solar System from right here on Earth,” said Karen O’Neil, the Green Bank Observatory site director.
“As the Sun came up I was absolutely blown away by how incredibly beautiful our planet Earth is. Absolutely breathtaking. Like someone took the most brilliant blue paint and painted a mural right in front of my eyes. I knew right then and there that I would never, ever see anything as beautiful as planet Earth again.”
Scott Kelly, Former NASA Astronaut
There is a common experience shared by human beings who visit that edge of space when they turn back and look upon their home planet. In that most fleeting of moments, they see the beauty and delicacy of our homeworld. It’s clearly not a view that many of us will get to experience in person, certainly not for the foreseeable future at least.
Despite that, thanks to some incredible photography and imaging techniques we too can view Earth from space and get a sense of our place in the solar system and the wider universe.
The term ‘Big Blue Marble’ as it applies to Earth refers to an image captured of our planet by the Apollo 17 astronauts in December 1972. The image — officially designated as AS17–148–22727 by NASA— was taken at 29 thousand kilometres above the Earth by the crew of the spacecraft as it headed to the Moon.
Turning their view back on our planet, the astronomers caught a stunning image of the Mediterranean Sea to Antarctica. The image shows the south hemisphere heavily shrouded by clouds and represents the first time that an Apollo craft had been able to capture the southern polar ice caps.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about AS17-148-22727 is that it wasn’t supposed to exist. The crew weren’t scheduled to take an image at that point in their journey.
The fact that the photo was snapped very much during a ‘stolen moment’ aboard the craft and during a mission that was tightly scheduled down to the minute, makes the fleeting beauty it presents even more striking, as too does the fact that no human since has travelled far enough away from the surface of the planet to take such an image.
Since being taken ‘the Blue Marble’ has rightfully become one of the most reproduced images in human history. Though the most famous image of Earth from a space-based vantage point and a rare example of the glimpse of a fully illuminated globe, AS17–148–22727 is just one of a cavalcade of stunning images of our planet taken over seven decades.
The very first of these images were captured in perhaps the most unusual and ironic of circumstances.
The Early days of Earth Photography: Recovering from War
“Consider again that dot [Earth]. 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.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
During the Second World War German V2s caused untold amounts of damage upon the cities of Europe, raining death from the skies and bringing profound fear and sorrow. It’s somewhat ironic then that the scientific marvel of the first image of Earth from space was delivered by one of these fearsome rockets.
Several V2s– Vergeltungswaffe 2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles–had been reclaimed by the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. The aim, however, was to use their incredible supersonic speed not to escape radar detection, as had been the case during the war, but to escape the confines of the atmosphere.
The rockets had their explosive payloads removed from their nosecones and replaced with scientific equipment.
On 24th October 1946, experiments with the V2s would result in a tangible benefit and a legitimate scientific breakthrough. A rocket launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, USA, would capture an image of the Earth from an altitude of 105km. Up until this point in time, the highest an image of earth that had been taken was 22km by equipment aboard a high-altitude balloon.
The image was captured by a 35mm camera in the device’s nosecone which was set to capture a picture every 1.5 seconds. These images were then dropped back to earth in a steel canister and developed.
The V2 program and the series of experiments that it birthed would help US scientists lay the groundwork for future space exploration and was reflected by similar experiments in the Soviet Union at the time. These programs and the reclamation of German technology and the scientists behind it was responsible for launching the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. And no goal or aspiration would encompass this heated scientific battle more than the desire to put a human on the Moon.
The Earth and the Moon: Picturing a Perfect Partnership
“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”
Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space (12 April 1961)
By 1966 when the image above was captured the space race was in full swing. The USSR had launched both Sputnik 1 & 2 into orbit in October and November 1957 respectively, with the first becoming the original Earth-orbiting satellite and the second carrying a dog named Laika into space.
This would quickly be followed by US satellites Explorer 1 carrying experimental equipment that would lead to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt, and the world’s first communications satellite SCORE, both in 1958. In the same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be created to replace the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
Most significantly, in 1961 the Soviets would put the first human being into orbit. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit around the Earth at a speed of over 27 thousand kilometres per hour during his 108-minute stay in space.
Yet, it wasn’t the Soviets that captured the stunning image above of earth from the vicinity of the Moon’s surface. That honour belongs to the US craft Lunar Orbiter 1 (LU-A). The NASA spacecraft was the first US mission to orbit the Moon, its primary task was to photograph not the Earth but rather potential landing sites on the Moon for the upcoming Apollo missions.
Again, as was the case with Apollo 17’s ‘Blue Marble’, the image of Earth from space taken by Lu-A taken on August 28th 1966 by the onboard Eastman Kodak imaging system was completely unplanned.
In 1969 many of the Apollo missions themselves would capture stunning and evocative images of the Earth rising above the crest of the Moon’s surface–including the above image captured by Apollo 11 and the one below taken by Apollo 8. These ‘Earthrise’ photographs would become a popular expression of Earth’s relative isolation and vulnerability.
The Earth From the Surface of an Alien World
“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 Command Module Pilot, during a live broadcast from the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968.
It’s no great surprise given our advancing exploration of space that our attention has turned to the view of Earth from other alien worlds. Even though we are still capturing amazing images from that vantage point such as the one above taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission in 2015, our horizons have also broadened to a view of our homeworld from the surface of more distant worlds.
The first image of earth taken from another planet (above) was captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on the 63rd Martian day of its mission in 2004. Earth was only visible in the image–comprised from images taken by the now silent robotic rover’s four panoramic cameras–after all the colour filters were removed.
This was followed up in January 2014 by NASA’s Curiosity Rover when it captured its first glimpse of Earth from the surface of Mars.
Whilst Mars Exploration Rover Spirit and the Curiosity Rover images may not be the most visually spectacular in the catalogue built during seven decades of space exploration, it stands as a testament to man’s determination to explore other worlds. a determination that nows carries us beyond the solar system.
A View on the Future
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’ “
Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut and the sixth person to walk on the Moon.
As we continue to expand our view of the Universe studying cosmic bodies further and further from our own solar system, the history of space photography reminds us that it is vital we keep a view on our own planet, too. It’s a testament to our scientific progress that the hardest element about putting together a brief article about images of Earth from space that it involved sifting through thousands of incredible pictures.
Currently, NASA’s fleet of satellites consists of many craft devoted to the observation of Earth from space. Often this observation from a cosmic vantage point has the benefit of providing perspective on the damage we are doing to our world. Not only this but NASA’s continued observation of our world allows us to better understand weather patterns and mitigate potential disasters.
Humanity has never been in a better position to understand our world and its place within the wider Universe. The view of our planet from space has shown us its fragility, vulnerability, and the lengths we must go to preserve this beautiful blue marble.
“It is crystal clear from up here that everything is finite on this little blue marble in a black space, and there is no planet B.”
Alexander Gerst, European Space Agency astronaut, to world leaders live from the ISS, December 17th 2018.
It’s already been 48 years since those amazing moments, but their image is still as inspiring as ever.
Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin poses with the US flag planted on the Sea of Tranquility. If you look closely, you can see Aldrin’s face through his helmet visor.
On July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle separated from the Command Module Columbia. Left alone on the shuttle, Michael Collins watched as the Eagle pirouetted before him, safely carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards the surface of the Moon. The seconds were long, but they came to an end, as Armstrong’s timeless words resounded across the entire planet.
Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon. Photo snapped by Neil Armstrong.
But even that would be topped. Broadcasted to a global audience, Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, describing the event in even more iconic words: “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said. For the most part, Armstrong operated the camera, which meant that most of the footage is of Aldrin. But it was Armstrong who first stepped on the moon, unveiling a plaque signed by the astronauts and President Nixon
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The view of Earth from the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Tranquility indeed.
Armstrong and Aldrin spent just under a day on the lunar surface, collecting rocks and planting a flag, but it was a day that inspired generations and generations of scientists and explorers. The most advanced technological feat of the time, and the first time a human being had set foot on an extraterrestrial body. Oh, and they did it with less processing power than your smartphone.
But it wasn’t just the Apollo 11. The whole Apollo project propelled science and space exploration into a new world, expanding the limits of our knowledge beyond what many thought was possible.
Astronaut Dave Scott pokes his head out of the Apollo 9 command module while it orbits Earth.
These images do a great deal to capture that spirit. Archived by NASA and arranged by Kipp Teague, a volunteer historian who runs the Project Apollo Archive, they tell a wonderful story. A story of courage, hard work, and intelligence. A triumph of science over a “magnificent desolation.” Sure, you could say it was a part of the Cold War, you could say it was a political impetus that caused these achievements, but at the end of the day, it was the work of brilliant men and women that got the job done.
Here’s to them!
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong in the lunar module shortly after taking the first steps on the moon’s surface.
This July 20, 1969 photograph of the interior view of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module shows astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. during the lunar landing mission. The picture was taken by Armstrong, prior to the landing.
It was not with ease that this was done — and nothing illustrates that better than Apollo 13. It was supposed to be the third mission to reach the Moon, but two days after takeoff, an oxygen tank exploded. Rather ironically, the shuttle passed the far side of the Moon, to this day remaining the farthest humans have ever traveled from Earth.
After them, other missions were successful in reaching the Moon. Apollo 17 was the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program, and it was the last time mankind has set foot on the Moon. It was in 1972.
A close-up view of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint in the lunar soil, photographed with the 70mm lunar surface camera during Apollo 11’s sojourn on the moon.
Astronaut James B. Irwin with Apollo 15’s Lunar Roving Vehicle.
Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, along with Charles Duke, set up the first lunar surface cosmic ray detector.
An Apollo 17 astronaut takes a sample of a rock on the Moon.
An Apollo 15 astronaut walks next to tracks left by the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Apollo 15 was the first Apollo mission that packed a “moon buggy.”
A bit of lunar perspective. NASA designed the Lunar Roving Vehicle to operate in low gravity and allow the astronauts to traverse more ground during their short time on the Moon’s surface.
A crewman sprays water over a recovered injector plate. (c) Bezos Expeditions
Jeff Bezos is an extraordinary individual whom I admire very much, not because of its almost ubiquitous success in every attempt he has endeavored, but rather because Bezos, much like SpaceX‘s Elon Musk, is a man of vision – a man that recognizes value both in man and nature, and strives for progress.
The Amazon founder, like all great visionaries, is a man that isn’t afraid to relive the past, and moreover to cherish it. This is why last year he announced through his Bezos Expeditions venture fund website that an underwater expedition would be on its way to retrieve the enormous F-1 rocket engines used during the iconic Apollo 11 launch that put man for the first time on the moon.
These rocket engines were behemoths, no less, of thrust and pure raw power, gobbling up 1 ton of RP-1 fuel and 2 tons of liquid oxygen per second! They were used during the Apollo missions to propel the Apollo 11’s Saturn V launch vehicle off the launch pad for up to 150 seconds and onward to the moon.
Anyway, almost exactly one year after Bezos announcement, his foundation reported that the very first components and engine parts have been recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, after more than 40 years of resting on the seabed. As you can imagine this was no easy task. First of all, the engines were found and had to be retrieved from a depth of three miles or 2,000 feet deeper than the Titan wreck. As such, human divers were absolutely left out of the question and the expedition had to rely on mechanized unmanned submersibles to perform the task.
Remotely controlled, with obstructed visibility due to the murky waters and equipped not with the gentlest of robots, the team involved in the expedition performed a Herculean task in a remarkable display of skill – remember, each fully assembled F-1 is 19 feet (5.8 meters) from nozzle to fuel inlets and weighs about 20,000 lbs (about 9,000 kg). The salvaging team was headed by Rory Golden, who previously worked with Dr. Robert Ballard in locating the Titanic.
What’s interesting however at this point is that the salvaged F-1s might not come from the Apollo 11 mission, but from other missions. Each engine was hand built and assembled, with each component being thoroughly tagged with serial numbers in order for the manufacturing process to be scrutinized. Most of the salvaged components, however, have been so plagued by corrosion and the test of time that these serial numbers can’t be found anymore.
So far, the expedition has pulled out of the bottom of the Atlantic ocean enough parts to fully assemble two F-1 engines. Bezos promises that the reconstructed engines will be part of a grand museum-quality display. It’s also worth noting that Bezos also has a private space venture of his own, Blue Origin, of which we’ll most likely hear about a lot in the future.
“We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface,” Bezos stated. “We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing.”
Looks like one of NASA‘s latest priorities is to protect its lunar heritage from illegal black market trade of moon artifacts, evident in a recently highly publicized case in which a 74 year old grandmother attempting to sell a moon rock was intercepted by armed government officials.
Part of an elaborate operation, federal agents tracked down Joanna Davis at a Denny’s dinner, after which she was taken into custody along with a speck of lunar dust smaller than a grain of rice, as well as a nickel-sized piece of the heat shield that protected the Apollo 11 space capsule.
According to the elderly woman, both artifacts were given as a gift to her late husband, who used to work as an engineer for North American Rockwell (they had contracts with NASA during the Apollo era), by Neil Armstrong himself, allegedly. Apparently, she was trying to self them off to pay for her sick son’s expenses.
Although space rocks and other memorabilia have been offered as a gift by the US government to various institutions, countries and high ranking individuals, these too still remain in the property of the US. The selling of such objects for profit is considered a serious infraction, and as such the US government is trying to get ahold of anyone attempting such a deed. I, for one, am curious if NASA is specking all the lunar rock frauds down on eBay.
“It’s a very upsetting thing,” Davis told The Associated Press. “It’s very detrimental, very humiliating, all of it a lie.”
If this story wasn’t humorous enough, the granny decided to contact NASA officials for tips on how to sell it, back in May 10th, which eventually tipped them off. According to a NASA official, Davis was fully aware that the artifacts she had in her custody not too long ago were illegal to trade on the open market, since she mentioned several times the term “black market” in conversations. Curiously, though, Davis agreed to sell the sample to NASA for a stellar $1.7 million. Well, little did she knew.
In a previous statement, Neil Armstrong claimed that he never gave out any kind of lunar samples or Apollo missions remnants to any individual. NASA refused to provide any details on the matter, and no charges were filled against Davis.
This reminds me, you guys remember how some NASA interns stole a few hundred pounds of moon rocks and then arranged them on a bed, on which they later had sex? Yes, this is all 100% true. Adrenaline beats comfort, I guess.
A recent NASA operation (who knew they do this stuff ?) busted a woman who was trying to sell what she claimed was a piece of the Moon for the meager price of 1.7 million dollars. This came as a result of months of targeting her, after rumour spread that she was selling such items. The decisive meeting between the two parties took place at a restaurant in Lake Elsinore, where the woman gave the price to an undercover NASA agent.
“After conversation, the moon rock was produced inside the restaurant (and) several (sheriff’s) investigators and NASA agents moved in on the suspect, took possession of the rock and detained the suspect,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Paulin in an interview with KPSP Local 2 News.
In case you didn’t know, the pieces brought back from the Moon are considered national treasures, and as a consequence, it is illegal to sell or buy them. This does leave one legitimate question – was she really selling a piece from the Moon, or was it all just a scam ? There are more than 100 such pieces which have somehow remained unaccounted for during the years, so it’s quite possible. About 300 rocks were brought back to the US during the Apollo missions, and they were distributed throughout the 50 states, and even some foreign countries; but don’t let the name fool you, the ‘rocks’ vary in weight from 0.05 grams to about two grams. The story gets even more interesting: the Netherlands national museum announced that it had tested its own moon rock, and found that it actually was a piece of petrified wood and nothing more.
So what ever happened to the moon rocks? Officially at least, nobody knows. As for the woman in case, if the piece turns out to be genuine, she will be in more trouble than if it was a fake; and if it is a fake, it’s still uncertain what kind of charges she might face.