NASA satellite snaps Earth's portrait from distant Mars

LOS ANGELES -- NASA on Thursday released what it billed as the first portrait of Earth as seen from Mars.

The colorized photograph shows Earth as a small blue dot orbited by its even smaller moon. A space agency satellite in orbit around the Red Planet took the portrait May 8.

Since Earth is closer to the sun than Mars, it exhibits phases, as do the moon, Venus, and Mercury when viewed from our planet. In the image, the Earth appears to be waning.

The keen-eyed can make out clouds over the central and eastern United States and northern South America, as well as portions of Central America and the Gulf of Mexico, in a specially processed blowup of the image.

The Mars Global Surveyor also captured Jupiter and several of its own moons in the same portrait, a highly enhanced composite of two exposures. At the time, Jupiter was 600 million miles from Mars; Earth was just 86 million miles away, scientists said.

"This image gives us a new perspective ... one in which we can see our own planet as one among many," said Michael Malin, whose San Diego company built and operates the satellite's camera.

NASA said the portrait was unprecedented -- but not for lack of trying.

The agency's Pathfinder spacecraft attempted several times to photograph the Earth after reaching Mars in 1997, Matt Golombek, that mission's project scientist, said.

The spacecraft, Golombek said, was thwarted each time by the bane of astronomers everywhere: cloudy skies.

Images of Earth from space have been among the most compelling returns from NASA missions, including those sent to explore other planets.

The Apollo 8 spacecraft began orbiting the moon on Dec. 24, 1968, becoming the first manned mission to do so. During a live Christmas Eve television broadcast, the mission's three-man crew took turns reading from the book of Genesis -- and showing pictures of the Earth as it rose above the moon.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," command module pilot Jim Lovell said at the time.

And in 1990, as NASA's unmanned Voyager 1 spacecraft reached the fringes of the solar system, it turned back to take a final look at Earth at the suggestion of astronomer Carl Sagan. The image, taken from 4 billion miles away, later inspired the title of Sagan's "A Pale Blue Dot."

"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," Sagan wrote in the 1994 book.


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