MESSENGER moves off

By Phil Plait | April 20, 2006 10:11 pm

In my last blog entry, I talked about how the Mercury probe MESSENGER took images of the Earth as it flew past our home planet a year after launch. In that entry, the focus was on the different filters the probe used.

But I only showed two images. In fact, MESSENGER took hundreds of images during that flyby, which means they can be strung together to get an animation. And that’s just what scientists did. The animation they made is phenomenal: it shows the Earth from a distance of just 66,000 kilometers– not much farther out than weather satellites orbit– and then continues as MESSENGER zipped past us, out to a distance of 436,000 kilometers — farther than the Moon — over the course of about 24 hours. Mind you, it took more than three days for the Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon, so MESSENGER is really hauling. During the movie, you can see the Earth rotating all the way around once.

So much for geocentrism.

Anyway, the movie is pretty big, more than 4 Mb, but it’s well worth the wait. The sense of being there on board the little spaceship is palpable. The images are really clear and clean, and there is something very special about seeing our blue marble against the velvet of deep space.

And oh, by the way: Dean was right. Ironically, this was sitting in my "post about it" pile for a long time, too.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (33)

Links to this Post

  1. 2020 Hindsight » Beautiful Rotating Blue Marble | April 21, 2006
  2. Moonage Spacedream | April 21, 2006
  1. Sam

    Nice try Mr. Bad Astronomer. Here’s a question: Where are all the stars in the background? Obviously a poorly made CGI animation crafted by the charlatans at NASA.

    Ok, I’m joking! This video is actually the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while. For some reason I turned the volume up as it started… I had to laugh at myself, what was I expecting?

  2. I was kind of expecting a deep voice with an English accent to start intoning, “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the space probe MESSENGER. . . .”

    Seriously, in space, no one can hear you sigh in wonder.

  3. Chip

    …the camera started rolling on Aug. 2. It was 270,847 miles (435,885 kilometers) away from Earth – farther than the Moon’s orbit – when it snapped the last image on Aug. 3…”

    That’s faster than any old jet I’ve been in. That’s moving!

  4. I was expecting:

    Take my love, take my land
    Take me where I cannot stand
    I don’t care, I’m still free
    You can’t take the sky from me
    Take me out to the black
    Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
    Burn the land and boil the sea
    You can’t take the sky from me
    There’s no place I can be
    Since I found Serenity
    But you can’t take the sky from me…

  5. Dude

    THAT ROCKED! I also turned up the volume and I was expecting laser warfare.

  6. Wow. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be showing it to my students today.

  7. Scott

    Wow, thought this looked familiar! Saw this last September, but it doesn’t really get old.

    I’m sure this will be a classic someday, our grandkids or great grandkids will be looking at this in a “textbook” in 2nd Grade Earth Science class.

  8. ioresult

    From 66Mm to 436Mm in 24h, that’s barely above 4km/s average. What’s Earth escape velocity? 11km/s? Oh yeah, that’s at sea level. At 66Mm from Earth, escape velocity is down to 3.4km/s. Whew, now I can sleep without fearing the universe is about to explode. Wait, it already did! hehe

  9. Grand_Lunar

    Great movie. Similar to the one by Galileo on it’s way to Jupiter.

    Messenger sure is moving. I had no idea one would have to move so fast to catch up with the Iron Planet (could there be a connection to the Iron Chef?).

  10. Eighthman

    Actually, Earth flew by Messenger — Earth was traveling faster. As noted in the earlier blog entry, Messenger has to slow down to get closer to the Sun. That’s why Earth in the movie is illuminated on the left side as it gets smaller. Your not viewing the planet as if you’re seeing it “through the back window,” but from the front.

  11. The Supreme Canuck

    Fwa! Now that’s just fun, BA. I also almost did the volume thing, but caught myself before I did it.


    It is correct to say that Messenger flew by Earth, or that Earth flew by Messenger. Or even that they both flew by each other. All are true. Don’t you love relativity?

  12. Michael

    Wow! I really love seeing animations like that; they make the Earth seem so alive. Unlike a photo, which shows only a static, stationary planet, animations show a dynamic, changing world. I wonder if they’ll have similar animations of the other planets as they pass by.

    I’ve never noticed the glowing reflection of the Sun (specular highlight?) off the water before; now I’ll be looking through other Earth images to see if it’s there. :)

  13. Michelle Rochon

    That’s just awesome! You even see the Sun’s glare! It’s gorgeous. :)

  14. Nigel Depledge

    Very cool clip. Just “wow!”

    Isn’t our planet pretty?

  15. Irishman

    Eighthman, you are correct that the Earth is going faster than MESSENGER, but you are incorrect that MESSENGER has to slow down. All data at this site indicates MESSENGER is speeding up. The Gravity Assist maneuvers are adding velocity to MESSENGER.

    See for example the heading for Table 1.
    “The spacecraft orbit shrinks as speed increases”
    and look at the data in the table.

  16. Moonage, I hate to say this, but the animation has been around a while. I just finally got around to posting it. ;-)

  17. CousinoMacul


    I don’t care how long the video’s actually been around. Just like it’s said that most people rarely travel more than a few miles from their homes, I rarely travel more than a couple links from my Bookmarks. So it’s new to me! And I love it!

    Maybe I’ll edit it to run backwards and a little slower. That way I can tell some of my more naive friends that it’s a movie of Neptune and see how quickly they figure out that they’ve been had.

  18. Eighthman,

    Thanks for the explanation. I was wondering why it was lit from the left, and about to post the question here.

  19. CR

    Re: Sun’s reflection on the oceans… Yes, it’s there in other pics of Earth, but sometimes it takes animation to notice it. A lack of cloud cover helps, too.

  20. SFwriter

    Wrong lyrics, Thomas Siefert… Try these:

    It’s been a long road,
    Getting from there to here.
    It’s been a long time,
    but my time is finally here.

    And I can feel a change
    in the wind right now.
    Nothing’s in my way.
    And they’re not gonna
    hold me down no more.
    No they’re not gonna hold me down.

    ‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart.
    I’m going where my heart
    will take me.
    I’ve got faith to believe.
    I can do anything.
    I’ve got strength of the soul.
    And no one’s going to bend
    or break me.
    I can reach any star.
    I’ve got faith,
    I’ve got faith,
    Faith of the heart.

    It’s been a long night,
    Trying to find my way.
    Been thru the darkness,
    Now I finally have my day.

    And I will see my dream
    come alive at last.
    I will touch the sky.
    And they’re not gonna hold
    me down no more.
    No they’re not gonna change
    my mind.

    ‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart.
    I’m going where my heart
    will take me.
    I’ve got faith to believe.
    I can do anything.
    I’ve got strength of the soul.
    And no one’s going to bend
    or break me.
    I can reach any star.
    I’ve got faith,
    Faith of the heart.

    I know the wind’s so cold,
    I’ve seen the darkest days.
    But now the winds I feel,
    Are only winds of change.
    I’ve been thru the fire,
    And I’ve been thru the rain,
    But I’ll be fine.

    ‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart.
    I’m going where my heart
    will take me.
    I’ve got faith to believe.
    I can do anything.
    I’ve got strength of the soul.
    And no one’s going to bend
    or break me.
    I can reach any star.
    ‘Cause I’ve got faith,
    ‘Cause I’ve got faith,
    Faith of the heart…

    Faith of the heart.
    I’m going where my heart
    will take me.
    I’ve got faith to believe.
    And no one’s going to bend
    or break me.
    I can reach any star.
    ‘Cause I’ve got faith,
    ‘Cause I’ve got faith,
    Faith of the heart…

  21. Melusine

    I’m mystified as to why I haven’t seen that before. It’s very cool, and I’m happy to be a taxpayer during these moments. In fact, I could sit here and watch a longer and longer version all day.

    Thanks, Phil, for posting that; it made my day yesterday. Congratulations to those who put it together. It should be evident that more $$ need to go to space imaging. ;-)

    @ Thomas Siefert and SFwriter: Where are each of those lyrics from?

  22. My lyrics are from the title song to the TV-show Firefly.

    SFwriter’s lyrics are from the Star Trek Enterprise TV-show theme song.

  23. icemith

    Thomas, I’m glad space IS silent, because with those lyrics of the Star Trek show theme song (?), we’d all have to ‘Faith the Muthic’ otherwise!

    But the ‘movie’ sure was great.


  24. icesmith, In space, no one can hear you sing :-)

  25. Nothing more awesome than a living Earth.

  26. icemith

    Tom, do you mean it’s the singer, and not the song? Aw gee.


  27. Like an earlier poster wrote about Messenger moving much faster than Apollo’s trip to the Moon and back to Earth over several days, It looks like the “myth” of the Greeks are turning into the Truth:

    [start paste]Hermes (Mercury) became a messenger because his father Zeus sought to curb the thieving tendencies Hermes demonstrated. On the day of his birth, Hermes stole his brother Apollo’s cattle in order to create the first sacrifice to the Olympians.[end paste]

    So, Apollo’s fire has been ripped off again… :*)

  28. Delance

    From the point of view of Earth, Earth is the center of the universe. Take that Heliocentrism!

  29. prowler67

    Kond of makes you realize how alone we are here on earth. I guess most people assume that the solar systen is much smaller. Great video, really makes you appreciate astronomy more.

  30. Courtney

    Makes you realize that we are just one tiny part of the world and that the solar system makes us feel super super super super super super small

  31. RocketScience

    The Messenger spacecraft moves faster than Apollo because it speeds up incredibly as it approaches Earth (it is falling — all orbits are just falling) and Apollo is trying to speed up against gravity. The probe does slow down as it moves away too. As far as the gravity-assist speeding it up or slowing it down, that depends on approach angles and timing and all that.


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