Launched on August 3, 2004, NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft has been rocketing around the inner solar system for the past few years, doing flybys of Earth, Venus, and its primary target—Mercury—as it prepares for the final phase of its mission. If all goes as planned, MESSENGER will enter Mercury orbit in March 2011, and it will spend a year observing the planet’s composition, magnetic field, geology, and exosphere.
On August 2, 2005, MESSENGER did a flyby of Earth, whipping around the planet at an altitude (at closest approach) of 2,348 kilometers (1,459 miles) and a maximum speed (relative to the ground) of nearly 11 kilometers per second (7 miles per second). This tremendous distance and speed meant that MESSENGER could provide no more than a fleeting glimpse of the Earth below, but the view’s unique perspective makes it worth sharing. This image shows the Pacific Ocean in the center, South America on the right and North America on the left. Smoke from fires in the Amazon obscured the lush vegetation of the rainforest, while just left of the apex of the globe, Tropical Storm Harvey was taking shape in the Atlantic Ocean.
Image courtesy NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Carnegie Institution of Washington. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.