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A portrait of Earth and the Moon from 3 million miles away

Steve Dent

Sometimes you need to step back to see the big picture, and if your subjects are 249,000 miles apart, you need to step waaay back. Luckily, the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is moving rapidly away from us and was recently just in the right position, around 3.1 million miles away, so it trained its MapCam instrument towards its former home and captured this poignant portrait of the Earth and the Moon.

NASA/Goddard and the University of Arizona also released an image (below) showing the MapCam's field of view when it snapped the shot. OSIRIS-REx had recently received a big gravity boost from Earth, sending it on its way to the asteroid Bennu, where it will arrive later this year. On October 2nd, it was in the perfect position -- about 13 times the separation between the Earth and Moon -- to capture both our home planet and its orbiting pal.

OSIRIS-REx will perform several high-degree-of-difficulty feats. First it will try to scoop up organic materials from Bennu that might be precursors to life, by bouncing gently off it and firing a nitrogen burst to loosen the materials. It then must return to Earth and deliver those samples to scientists, dropping them by parachute onto the Utah desert.

It might be a good idea to get a spacecraft close to Bennu for another reason. "It is also an asteroid that could someday make a close pass or even a collision with Earth, though not for several centuries," NASA notes. Since it's around 492 meters (1,614 feet) across -- not big enough to destroy the Earth, but big enough to cause a lot of damage -- future civilizations might decide to send a rocket to either blow it up or deflect it.

As for the photo, both the Earth and Moon were captured together in three separate image taken in different color wavelengths. Those were combined and color-corrected to make the final composite, "and the moon was 'stretched' (brightened) to make it more easily visible," NASA notes.

The image shows how missions like OSIRIS-REx provide multiple benefits. There are very few photos of both the Earth and Moon together, and like other shots taken of our planet from distant places, it helps us forget our hubris and remember that our planet is both tiny, unique and fragile.

"From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty," astronaut Edgar Mitchell said shortly after his Apollo 14 mission. "You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"

NASA

  • This article originally appeared on Engadget.