Asteroid-Sampling Spacecraft Captures Haunting View of Earth in Space

OSIRIS-REx tested its cameras by taking a gorgeous photo of its home planet

Osiris rex
Earth and Moon seen from 3 million miles away on October 2, 2017. NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona

NASA’s asteroid sampling spacecraft captured a gorgeous view of our delicate planet and its lunar buddy set against the vastness of space.

The image comes from spacecraft OSIRIS-REx—an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer—which is on a mission to study the asteroid Bennu. When it arrives in December 2018, it will map the space rock, then capture a sample to return to Earth by 2023. The mission will help scientists better understand asteroids, which can provide clues into the formation of our solar system. But the study is also a stepping-stone on NASA’s longer journey to develop the skills and technology to mine asteroids in space.

OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016, using Earth as a slingshot the following year for help redirecting its path to Bennu. During the maneuver, it turned its mid-range scientific camera MapCam towards the Earth, snapping some pics of our planet in space.

The above image is a composite of photographs captured on October 2, 2017. The images were taken using three color filters, then the contrast on the moon was stretched to make it brighter and more visible. Although pretty, the true purpose of the photograph was pragmatic, reports Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society: to test the instruments, and to train them on Earth data to help calibrate them in advance of the spacecraft’s arrival at Bennu.

The camera captured the image when the spacecraft was 3,180,000 miles from planet—just over thirteen times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. However, because of of the spacecraft’s angle of retreat, Akshat Rathi calculated for Quartz, duo appear closer together than they actually are.

The simple image is a captivating reminder that each of Earth's creatures—and every one that came before—all share this delicate outpost in the vast, dark vacuum of space.