Forty-two years ago Sept. 18, a remarkable photo was taken.
On Sept. 18, 1977, Voyager 1 captured Earth and the moon in the same photo shot by a spacecraft from deep space.
Voyager 1, launched 13 days earlier from Cape Canaveral, Fla., was en route to the outer reaches of the solar system with the particular mission of glimpsing Jupiter and Saturn, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
This was not the first shot of the neighboring pair.
A photo taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 captures a bit of the surface of the moon and Earth, when, before the first moon landing, scientists were looking for a good place to park, and unmanned orbiters were sent out to get the lay of the land, so to speak.
Science and astronomy writer Ben P. Stein described the camera on the orbiter in this way: “The entire camera contraption would have made Rube Goldberg proud, exposing, developing and processing photographic film on board a moving spacecraft, traveling around the moon constantly between hot and cold temperature extremes anywhere from approximately 27 to 3,700 miles above the lunar surface.”
Sent out in quick succession, a total of five lunar orbiters mapped the moon’s surface through photographs.
Shooting an Earthrise over the moon’s horizon was not part of the original mission for Lunar Orbiter 1, and there was concern about repositioning the device to take the picture.
On Aug. 23, 1966, the shutter clicked to capture far-off Earth and part of the moon.
Six years later, in December 1972, the now ubiquitous color image of Earth was taken as Apollo 17 neared the moon.
“They weren’t supposed to be taking pictures,” outside of scheduled photo ops, according to documentary filmmaker and screenwriter Al Reinert, writing for The Atlantic magazine in 2011. “They weren’t supposed to be looking out the window, either. But they couldn’t help it, none of them,” Reinert wrote of the three astronauts in Apollo 17.
Their collective impulse was fortunate for us.
“The Big Blue Marble,” as the photograph has come to be known, is often credited with giving Earth’s residents a held-in-common global perspective for the first time, capturing a full disc image of Earth.
And the first photo of the moon and Earth in the same frame taken 42 years ago Sept. 18 could be said to speak to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a neighbor within and perhaps across a seemingly infinitely expansive divide.
Science educator Deborah Byrd wrote this of the 1977 photo: “We’d never seen the Earth and moon as whole worlds in space, in the same frame and in color ... It was a stunning revelation.”
Voyager 1, Byrd explains, was 7.25 million miles from Earth when the shutter clicked to capture Earth and the moon together from deep space.
And Voyager 1 is not finished making headlines.
The spacecraft continues its journey, said to clock in at 35,000 miles per hour, into the universe, crossing into interstellar space in August 2012.
Several discoveries, including two new moons and a ring around Jupiter, and five new moons and ring around Saturn, are attributed to the craft that left Florida in the mid-20th century.
Transmissions from Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 are anticipated to continue into the 2030s.
In an interview with Scientific American, Suzanne Dodd, project manager of the Voyager Interstellar Mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said scientists will begin in 2020 to shut down more of the instruments on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to extend their lives in space. The camera that snapped the picture of Earth and moon 42 years ago was shut down in 1990.
However, Voyager 1 keeps in touch, transmitting data every day.
The spacecraft’s work is expected to improve the understanding of energy and radiation in space, contributing to education far into the future.
With luck, a few lessons on how to be a picture-perfect neighbor will be in data sent from a galaxy far, far away.
East Penn Press