In March of 2011, the spacecraft MESSENGER became the first ever moon of Mercury, taking unprecedented high-resolution images of the solar system's smallest official planet. But while it was on its tortuous path to Mercury, engineers back home programmed the spacecraft to take a series of snapshots, pointing the cameras painstakingly across the solar system. The result is what you see above: every planet in the solar system, a sort of cosmic family portrait.
Uranus and Neptune are there, but too faint to see (you should grab the bigger version of this
to see the details). Venus was relatively close to MESSENGER at the time, and so is very bright. My favorite part of this, though, is being able to see the Earth and Moon together. There's something eerie about seeing them both in pictures at the same time, nearly lost in the black (the Jupiter-bound spacecraft Juno took a similar shot of our world
this year as well).
It really brings home - well, so to speak - the fact that we are a speck of dust floating in space, tiny to the point of insignificance when seen like this. And yet, never forget that we are
significant: after all, we created the machine that took this picture!
I think it says a lot about us humans that not only do we send spacecraft to other worlds, but we take the time to make pictures like this. Sometimes, just sometimes, people are pretty cool. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington