Distant Earth: A History of 'Pale Blue Dots': Photos
Pictures of the Earth, from suborbital space to billions of miles away, remind us how small our planet really is.
NASA has released images from the Cassini Solstice mission -- that is currently orbiting the ringed gas giant Saturn -- depicting the distant dot of Earth and the moon from 900 million miles away. But this certainly isn't the first time the "Pale Blue Dot" has been spotted across the vastness of interplanetary space. Let's take a look back over the years from the earliest suborbital flights to the most famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of them all: from Voyager 1.
After the Second World War ended, the United States imported a number of Nazi V-2 missiles along with the scientists who had built them. These spoils of war found a home at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, where the V-2s were used to launch animal and robotic payloads beginning in the mid 1940s. These rockets were the first to take pictures of our planet from space. This grainy, black-and-white image was taken on Oct. 24, 1946, from an altitude of 65 miles by a 35-millimeter motion picture camera.
In the early 1960s, NASA briefly considered sending a Gemini crew to the moon, the idea being to secure the first manned visit early even if it didn't land. The idea was scrapped, and a "high-flying objective" for Gemini took its place. Gemini 11, launched on September 12, 1966, reached an apogee of 850 miles – the altitude from which this picture was taken. The crew, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, became the men who had traveled furthest from the Earth.
The Apollo 11 crew took this picture of the Earth rising over the moon's horizon from lunar orbit in July of 1969, before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface. At the time, the crew was some 250,000 miles away from home.
The crew of Apollo 13 took this image in April of 1970, on their way home after swinging around the moon's farside. The Asian mainland is visible under the cloud layer as are a cold front and clouds over the Pacific.
The Earth is little more than a sliver in this picture taken by the crew of Apollo 15 ten days after launching on July 26, 1971. The white line towards the left is a section of a spacecraft window frame. The crescent Earth seen by the crew means observers on the Earth would have seen a nearly full Moon, nearly 250,000 miles away
On Nov. 3, 1973, NASA launched Mariner 10. It was the first successful launch of the Mariner series and it became the first spacecraft to visit Mercury; the spacecraft reached the tiny planet on March 29, 1974. On it's way, Mariner 10 snapped pictures of the Earth and the moon from 1.6 million miles away. It was the first time a spacecraft managed to see both bodies together. Two images have been combined to illustrate the relative sizes of the two bodies.
It wasn't the first image of the Earth taken from deep space, but it's the most famous and still the most extreme: the classic "Pale Blue Dot." On June 6, 1990, nearly ten years after it flew past Saturn to begin its trip to the edge of the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft saw the Earth from more than 4 billion miles away -- no other space probe has seen the Earth from such a distance, yet. Our planet just happens to lie at the center of a scattered light ray; the sun was very nearly in the shot.
The Galileo spacecraft was launched on Oct. 18, 1989 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. It was sent out of Earth orbit by two-stage solid fuel motor, but it didn't go directly to Jupiter. To pick up speed, it flew by Venus on Feb. 10, 1990 before making Earth flybys, one on Dec. 8, 1990 and another December 8, 1992. Eight days after its final encounter with Earth, Galileo spacecraft looked back and captured this picture of the Earth and the moon in a single frame from 3.9 million miles away.
Spirit, one of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, launched on June 10, 2003. After a six month transit, it landed on the red planet on Jan. 4, 2004 near Gusev Crater. One hour before sunrise on the rover's 63rd sol (Martian day), it looked towards Earth and saw us as a tiny dot in the Martian sky. It was the first time the Earth was seen from the surface of another planet, at the time close to 40 million miles away.
Cassini has taken Earth's portrait in the past. Shown in this magnificent silhouetted Saturn photo, the dot of the Earth can be seen as a dot sandwiched between two rings to the left of the shot.
NASA's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment -- or HiRISE -- camera has captured some of the most stunningly detailed pictures of the Martian landscape from its platform on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But on Oct. 3, 2007, it turned to look at the Earth from 88 million miles away.
More than 30 years after Mariner 10 visited Mercury, NASA launched the Messenger spacecraft (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) to visit the planet closest to our Sun On Aug. 3, 2004. On May 6, 2010, the spacecraft snapped this picture of the Earth and the moon from 114 million miles away. The Earth is the larger dot, the moon the slightly smaller one right next to it.
Looking back as it zooms through interplanetary space, less than a month into its 445-million mile, five-year journey to the gas giant Jupiter, NASA's spacecraft Juno captured a portrait of the Earth and moon in Aug. 2011. Juno was 6 million miles away at the time.
On July 19, 2013, the whole world got the chance to smile for an interplanetary picture. The Cassini spacecraft, which launched on Oct. 15, 1997 and is currently in orbit around Saturn, took a picture of the Earth. Our home planet, 898 million miles away from Cassini, is the bright dot midway down the image towards right. Saturn's body and stunning rings are lit by the sun in the foreground.
Another shot from Cassini taken on July 19, 2013, this one shows what the Earth and the moon look like from Saturn. In this raw image, taken from 898 million miles away, the Earth is the brighter dot with the moon slightly below and to the left, barely brighter than some background stars.