Orbital View: Moon Edition

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The pale blue dot sure is beautiful up close—close being the surface of the moon, about 238,900 miles away.

This photo, released by NASA Friday, is a composite of images captured in October by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009, photographing the features of its surface, like the crater here, called Compton. Sometimes, the spacecraft will turn toward space to analyze the lunar atmosphere or recalibrate its instruments, and catch a few glimpses of the Earth. Doing this, NASA explains, is a pretty miraculous feat:

First the spacecraft must be rolled to the side (in this case 67 degrees), then the spacecraft slews with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the lunar horizon in LROC's Narrow Angle Camera image. All this takes place while LRO is traveling faster than 3,580 miles per hour (over 1,600 meters per second) relative to the lunar surface below the spacecraft!

The coast of Liberia is visible at the center of the Earth, and the chunk of land to its right is the Sahara Desert. The image resembles the famous “Blue Marble” shot captured by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, the first photograph taken of the whole round Earth and the only one ever taken by a human being.

(See all Orbital Views here)