How does Earth look from outer space?
What does Earth look like from outer space? And … how far away from Earth can we be and see it still with our own eyes?
To find the answer to these questions, let’s take an imaginary trip through the solar system. Indeed, spacecraft exploring our solar system have given us marvelous views of Earth. Keep reading, and check out the photos on this page, to see how Earth looks from various other places in our own neighborhood of space.
The view from orbiting the Earth
First, imagine blasting off and being about 200 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface. That’s about the height of the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS). From the window of the ISS, the surface of the Earth looms large. Indeed, in the daytime, you can clearly see major landforms. Subsequently, at night, from Earth orbit, you see the lights of Earth’s cities.
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From the moon
Now, let’s get farther away, say, the distance of the orbit of the moon.
As we pass the moon – some quarter million miles (about 380,000 km) away – Earth looks like a bright ball in space. In fact, it’s not terribly different from the way the moon looks to us.
Significantly, the first images of the Earth from the moon came from the Apollo mission. Apollo 8 in 1968 was the first human spaceflight to leave Earth orbit. Likewise, it was the first earthly spacecraft to be captured by and escape from the gravitational field of another celestial body, in this case the moon.
It was, therefore, the first voyage in which humans visited another world and returned to Earth.
In the decades since Voyager first began traveling outward, moon exploration has become more common. For example, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) just recently released a set of black-and-white images of the Earth and moon. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter – also known as KPLO or Danuri (moon enjoy) – captured the image below sometime after it entered lunar orbit on December 26, 2022.
Earth and moon together
Now, let’s keep moving outward until we can see both the Earth and moon together in space.
Since 1977, many robot spacecraft have ventured outward into our solar system. The image below of Earth and the moon was acquired by the multispectral imager on the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Spacecraft (NEAR) on January 23, 1998. It was recorded 19 hours after the spacecraft swung by Earth on its way to the asteroid 433 Eros. The images of both were taken from a range of 250,000 miles (400,000 km), approximately the same as the distance between the two bodies.
Below is a recent view of the Earth and the moon captured by the Orion spacecraft on November 28, 2022.
The next picture was mind-blowing when first released. It shows a crescent-shaped Earth and moon – the first of its kind ever taken by a spacecraft – on September 18, 1977.
The view from the outer planets
Finally, speeding outward from the Earth and moon system, you pass the orbits of the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Indeed, from all of these worlds, Earth looks like a star, which gets fainter as you get farther away.
I’ve never seen any image of Earth from Uranus or Neptune or any other body beyond Saturn’s orbit. To be sure, only five spacecraft from Earth – the two Voyager spacecraft, the two Pioneers, and the New Horizons spacecraft, which passed Pluto in 2015 – have ever ventured that far. Those craft weren’t designed to look back at Earth, and, to my knowledge, they didn’t capture images of Earth from distances beyond Saturn.
And from farther still?
But, speaking theoretically now, could Earth be seen from distances beyond Saturn?
Specifically, speaking only in terms of Earth’s brightness, the answer is yes. Our world doesn’t become too faint to see with the eye alone until far beyond Neptune’s orbit, at around 9 billion miles (14 billion km) from home. Now, consider Pluto’s orbit. It’s highly elliptical, stretching from just 2.7 billion miles (4.4 billion km) to over 4.5 billion miles (7.3 billion km) from the sun. Overall, Pluto is within the limiting distance at which – if we just consider brightness alone, no other factors – we should be able to see Earth with the eye alone.
But there is another factor. As you go outward from Earth, our world appears closer and closer to the blazing sun. As you get farther away, the sun’s glare begins to overwhelm the view of Earth. From Pluto – even though Earth would be bright enough to see – you probably couldn’t see it in the sun’s glare.
So how far away could you see Earth?
What is the answer to the question of how far you could be from Earth, and still see it with your own eyes? Although no one knows for sure because no one has tried it (and because human eyesight varies from person to person), the Earth would become impossible to see with the eye somewhere beyond Saturn’s orbit.
But now, let’s change the game. Let’s say we could use instruments, and not just the eye alone. And, suppose intrepid astronaut-astronomers went to Pluto. Suppose they took all the instruments they needed to view Earth in the sun’s glare. Could they use telescopes, obscuring disks and other techniques to get a glimpse of Earth? Maybe!
But it still wouldn’t be easy, however.
Read more: Wikipedia has a long write-up on extraterrestrial skies
Bottom line: How does Earth look from space? How far away in space could you view Earth with the eye alone? Considering only brightness, the answer is about 9 billion miles (14 billion km) away, about the distance of Neptune or Pluto. In practice, though, seeing it from that distance would be a challenge because the sun’s glare would overwhelm the view of Earth.