A New and Vivid Earthrise

3 minute read

Earth can be forgiven its vanity. We may have long ago learned that our flyspeck world does not sit at the center of the universe, that it’s a pint-sized planet in an afterthought solar system, in an outer province of an ordinary galaxy. But say this for Earth: it’s gorgeous.

In a universe of planets that too often are burnt umber or ice white or slate gray, ours is a riot of brilliant colors and swirling patterns. That loveliness is even more striking when pictures of the Earth are taken from the moon—with the bleakness of our only natural satellite contrasting sharply with the brightness of our home planet.

NASA has been photographing the Earth and moon in tandem for a long time—from the first black and white image taken by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in 1966, to the transformative Earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 in 1968, to the celebrated blue marble picture captured by the crew of Apollo 17 four years later. Now comes what might be the most vivid of them all: a composite image taken by a pair of cameras aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been orbiting the moon since 2009.

The image shows the complete disk of Earth, with Africa, the Arabian peninsula and South America clearly visible, rising over the moon’s Compton crater, which is on the lunar far side and thus never visible from Earth. Unlike the images taken by the Apollo crews, which were captured by with the snap of an ordinary—if high-quality camera—on film that had to be hand-carried home, LRO’s picture was created first by rolling the spacecraft on its side as it orbited 83 miles (134 km) above the lunar surface, in order to maximize its field of vision, firing two cameras at once—one black and white and one color—and then digitally combining and refining the images.

That may lack the you-are-there intimacy an astronaut in a spacecraft can capture, but the richness of the LRO portrait—with the sapphire of the Earth’s oceans, the white swirl of its clouds, the almost liquid look of the rolling lunar surface—is surely enough to qualify it as one of NASA’s finest. The moon has not felt the press of human boots for 43 years, and it could be many more years before it does again. But the view from the world we visited and left remains spellbinding.

See the Evolution of the Iconic Blue Marble Photo

Earth Blue Marble Apollo 17 1972
Blue Marble, 1972; The original "Blue Marble" was taken on Dec. 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula.NASA
NASA Earth Blue Marble MODIS 2002
NASA created these two images to exhibit high-resolution global composites of Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data. The land surface data were acquired from June through Sep. of 2001. The clouds were acquired on two separate days - July 29, 2001, for the northern hemisphere and Nov. 16, 2001 for the southern hemisphere. The images were rendered in late January 2002. NASA
Earth Blue Marble 2002 Terra
In 2002, NASA released the most detailed true-color image of the Earth’s surface ever produced up to that point. Scientists and data visualizers created the image by stitching together data collected over 4 months from NASA’s Terra satellite.The 2002 Blue Marble featured land surfaces, clouds, topography, and city lights at a maximum resolution of 1 kilometer per pixel. (NASA image by Robert Simmon and Reto Stöckli)
Earth Blue Marble Next Generation 2004
The Blue Marble: Next Generation was a series of images that show the color of the Earth’s surface for each month of 2004 at very high resolution (500 meters/pixel) at a global scale. This image is a mosaic showing South America from September 2004 (with clouds removed). Reto Stöckli and Robert Simmon/NASA
Earth Black Marble 2012
Known as the "Black Marble", this image of North and South America at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.NOAA/NASA/SuomiNPP
Earth Blue Marble VIIRS
An image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's Earth-observing research satellite, Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on 4 Jan. 4, 2012. NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
Earth Blue Marble DSCOVR
The newest "Blue Marble", Earth seen from a distance of one million miles captured by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft on July 6, 2015.NASA

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com