July 19, 2013. On this date last year, humanity acquired its third-ever image of Earth from the outer solar system, as the planet Saturn eclipsed the sun from the vantage point of an orbiting spacecraft, and as we on Earth cast our thoughts toward space. The Cassini spacecraft imaging team – led by Carolyn Porco – later dubbed this image The Day Earth Smiled. Learn more it, and see the first two images of Earth from deep space, by clicking on the links below.
The Day Earth Smiled image by Cassini, 2013. On July 19, 2013, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft had been orbiting Saturn and weaving in and among its moons since 2004. On that day, the spacecraft was aligned in such a way that Saturn eclipsed the sun as seen from its vantage point. With the sun’s light blocked, space scientists captured the third-ever picture of Earth from the outer solar system, and Earth’s moon, from hundreds of millions of miles away.
As Cassini slipped into Saturn’s shadow that day, it was also able capture images of the planets Venus and Mars, Saturn’s backlit rings, and several of Saturn’s moons, all at once.
The occasion defined the first time that people had advance notice they would be photographed from another world. NASA invited everyone on Earth to turn skyward and to wave as their image was taken from hundreds of millions of miles away. As the day approached, Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said people should:
… look up, think about our cosmic place, think about our planet, how unusual it is, how lush and life-giving it is, think about your own existence, think about the magnitude of the accomplishment that this picture-taking session entails. We have a spacecraft at Saturn. We are truly interplanetary explorers. Think about all that, and smile.
Thus The Day Earth Smiled, the image above, was born.
NASA said this natural-color image is as the human eye would see it, if you had been there with Cassini. Using both its wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras, the spacecraft captured a total of 323 photographs over a four-hour period of time, but only 141 images were used to create this panoramic mosaic.
This incredible image – released by NASA in November, 2013 – spans a distance of 404,880 miles — roughly twice the distance from the Earth to the moon.
Cassini was about 898 million miles (1.44 billion kilometers) away from Earth at the time. That distance is nearly 10 times the distance from the sun to Earth.
Carolyn Porco also said:
Ever since we caught sight of the Earth among the rings of Saturn in September 2006 in a mosaic that has become one of Cassini’s most beloved images, I have wanted to do it all over again, only better. This time, I wanted to turn the entire event into an opportunity for everyone around the globe to savor the uniqueness of our planet and the preciousness of the life on it.
She accomplished that, and more.
Pale Blue Orb image by Cassini, 2006. The second-ever image of Earth from the outer solar system came in 2006, just two years after Cassini began orbiting Saturn, when the spacecraft was about 930 million miles from Earth.
As with the 2013 image, the 2006 image was made possible by the passing of Saturn directly in front of the sun as seen from Cassini.
Pale Blue Dot image by Voyager, 1990. The first image ever taken of Earth from the outer solar system – and the most distant image, still – was acquired by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990. Its distance from Earth at the time was 4 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away. The image showed Earth as a pale blue dot. Hence the name. Voyager 1 had reached the edge of the solar system, 12 years after its launch and it had completed its primary mission. At the request of astronomer Carl Sagan, the spacecraft was commanded by NASA to turn around and photograph the planets of the solar system. The solar system mosaic was interesting, but this image – the image of our tiny world in space, surrounded by emptiness – was heart-rending. About this image, Carl Sagan later famously said:
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. 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.
Bottom line: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, now orbiting Saturn, took the third-ever picture of Earth from the outer solar system today’s date – July 19, 2013. The image came to be called The Day Earth Smiled. The other two pictures were taken in 1990 and 2006.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.