When people and robots launch into space on far-off missions, it's a quiet tradition to briefly turn back toward Earth and take a photo.
These rare views of our home planet — recorded from hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of miles away, often with outdated cameras — are rarely as crisp or colorful as the smartphone images we snap today on terra firma.
But the exceptional perspective they afford more than compensates for any visual shortcomings.
Photos of Earth from space not only help scientists understand how a habitable world looks from afar, helping the search to find more cozy planets, but also remind us of a humbling and chilling truth: We live on a tiny, fragile rock that is hopelessly lost in the cosmic void.
Here are 25 of the most arresting images of Earth and the moon from space that humankind has ever captured. (We recommend viewing this post on a desktop computer.) :
15 of the iconic images of the Earth
15 of the iconic images of the Earth
A few rare satellites launched by humanity enjoy a full view of Earth from thousands or even a million miles away.
Taken by: Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft
Date: April 9, 2015
NASA and NOAA created this composite image using photos taken by Suomi NPP, a weather satellite that orbits Earth 14 times a day. You can see the Joalane tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean (top right).
But it's when we venture deeper into space that Earth comes into spellbinding focus.
Taken by: Rosetta
Date: November 12, 2009
To rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2007 — which it will crash into (on September 30, 2016) — the Rosetta spacecraft needed a speed boost with the help of Earth's gravity. This photo it took of Earth shows the South Pole and Antarctica illuminated by the sun.
Our planet appears as a brilliant blue marble wrapped in a thin, nearly invisible veil of gas.
Taken by: Apollo 17's crew
Date: December 7, 1972
The crew of the last crewed lunar mission, Apollo 17, took this "blue marble" photo of Earth — one of the most-reproduced images in history (though no one is certain which astronaut took it) — from 28,000 miles away on their trip to the moon. Africa is visible at the top left of the image, and Antarctica on the bottom.
The moon — a cold, airless ball of rock 50 times smaller than Earth — is our largest and closest celestial friend.
Taken by: William Anders of Apollo 8's crew
Date: December 24, 1968
NASA's famous "Earthrise" image was taken as Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders swung around the moon. During a broadcast with Earth, Lovell said: "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."
We know this only because, since the 1950s, nations all around the world have launched people and robots there.
Taken by: Lunar Orbiter 1
Date: August 23, 1966
Lunar Orbiter 1 took this photo while scouting for places astronauts might land on the moon. Because 1960s technology couldn't access the full depth of image data that NASA had recorded on analog tapes, however, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project recently recovered this version of the famous image. The full-size version is large enough to print as a billboard.
A rare view of the far side of the moon, taken by the China National Space Administration's lunar probe. China has grown increasingly capable of exploring the solar system alongside NASA, ESA, Russia, India, and other space-faring nations. Its next moon mission: to return a lunar soil sample in 2017; if it succeeds, it will be the first collected since the last Apollo missions in the 1970s.
The Earth never seems to be too distant from the moon.
Taken by: Clementine 1
The Clementine mission was launched on January 25, 1994, as part of a joint NASA-strategic defense initiative. Before spinning wildly out of control on May 7, 1994, it took this composite photo of Earth, as seen across the northern pole of the moon.
A combination of two photos (one of Earth and one of the moon) taken by NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft, which journeyed to Mercury, Venus, and the moon after launching from a repurposed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
On its way to study Jupiter and its moons, NASA's Galileo spacecraft got its second speed boost from Earth's gravity. About a week after that maneuver it took this composite image from 3.9 million miles away. The moon, which is about one-third as bright as Earth, is closer to the viewer in the foreground.
NASA's asteroid-bound NEAR spacecraft took this two-part image of Earth and the moon from about 250,000 miles. Antarctica is visible in the south pole. NEAR eventually reached Asteroid 433 Eros, began orbiting the space rock, and deployed its Shoemaker lander spacecraft in 2001.
Source: NASA APOD
Most images don't accurately portray the distance between Earth and the moon.
Taken by: Voyager 1
Date: September 18, 1977
Most photos of Earth and the moon are (artful) cut-and-paste composites, since they are so far away from one another. However, this is the first photo of both worlds ever taken in a single frame, when Voyager 1 was 7.25 million miles away — en route to its "grand tour" of the solar system.
Only by traveling hundreds of thousands or millions of miles away, then turning around, can we truly appreciate what the 239,000 miles between two worlds actually looks like.
Taken by: Mars Express
Date: July 3, 2003
Nearly 5 million miles from Earth and on its way to the Red Planet, the Mars Express spacecraft pointed back home and snapped this photo. The satellite has orbited Mars and photographed its surface in 3D since December 2003.