The First Color Images of the Earth from Space

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One of the most iconic views of the Earth from space is the famous “Blue Marble” photograph.  Captured on December 7, 1972 by the crew onboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft from 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) away, it remains one of the most reproduced photographs in history.  The image is particularly captivating as it was taken with the illumination of the sun behind the Earth.

What is the First Color Image of the Earth from Space?

This picture wasn’t the first color image of the full Earth.  Years before, in 1967, two different satellites launched a couple of months apart were successful in using color filtering to capture the first color images of the Earth.  On July 1, 1967, the Department of Defense Gravitational Experiment (DODGE) satellite was launched with a mission to conduct gravity-gradient stabilization experiments from a near-geostationary orbit.  On September 20, 1967, a black and white 22° field-of-view TV camera took three separate photos of the Earth 18,000 miles from space: one with a red, one with a green, and the third with a blue filter (Mobley, 1968 and Schenkel, 1967).  The combined images created the first color image of the Earth from space.

On September 20, 1967, the first color image of the Earth was captured onboard the DODGE satellite.

On September 20, 1967, the first color image of the Earth was captured onboard the DODGE satellite. Photo: USAF/Johns Hopkins University.

The image produced showed South America on the right side of the image with North America towards the upper left.  In the image,  Hurricane Beulah can be seen churning over the Gulf of Mexico.  What looks like a beach ball at the bottom of the image is a color match card. The image was reproduced in the November 10, 1967 edition of LIFE magazine with the headline “First Color Portrait of an Angry Earth”.

First Image of the Earth and the Moon Together

In the mid 1960s, NASA launched the  Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) program.  The six satellites in the program carried a variety of communications, meteorology, and scientific experiments onboard.  ATS-1, launched December 7, 1966, carried a black-and-white weather camera onboard which captured the first image of the Earth and the moon together.


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The ATS-1 satellite captured the first image of the Earth and the Moon together on December 22, 1966. Image: NASA

The ATS-1 satellite captured the first image of the Earth and the Moon together on December 22, 1966. Image: NASA

Second Color Image of the Earth from Space

ATS-3, launched on November 5, 1967.  Carried onboard was the Multicolor Spin-Scan Cloud Camera which captured NASA’s first space-based color images of Earth, taken on November 10, 1967 from 21,156 miles above the surface of the Earth.  This camera was able to produce high resolution color pictures of the whole disc of the Earth in a 30-min sequence by simultaneously filtering three color images (red, green, blue) which were then transmitted back to a ground station on Earth for production (Warnecke & Sunderlin, 1968).  The picture graced the cover of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 1968, accompanied by two articles discussing the picture.

NASA's first color image of the Earth from space was featured on the cover of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

NASA’s first color image of the Earth from space was featured on the cover of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

References

Mobley, F. (1968, April). Gravity-gradient stabilization results from the DODGE satellite. In 2nd Communications Satellite Systems Conference (p. 460).

Schenkel, F. W. (1967). Photometric and optical considerations in the DODGE satellite TV camera design (DODGE satellite TV cameras for black and white, plus color picture transmission with photometric analysis and camera optics). APL Technical Digest, 6, 15-19.

Suomi, V. E., & Parent, R. J. (1968). A color view of planet earth. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 49(2), 74-75.

Warnecke, G., & Sunderlin, W. S. (1968). The first color picture of the Earth taken from the ATS-3 satellite. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 49(2), 75-83.

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