The Whole Earth: NASA Releases Its First Unstitched Image Since 1972

7-21-15 NASA DSCOVR Whole Earth
Earth, as seen on July 6 from a distance of 1 million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. NASA

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station regularly tweet out striking photos they've captured from their vantage point high above Earth. NASA's gallery of Earth images contains a wealth of visuals, most of which show a small portion of our planet's surface. But the most recent addition shows the entire sunlit side of Earth, the first such image NASA has captured since Apollo 17 took the iconic "blue marble" image in 1972, according to Steve Cole, a public affairs officer at NASA headquarters.

The first image returned from NASA's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) onboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was captured on July 6. It shows North and Central America just off-center with clouds swirling around and a pop of turquoise that marks the shallow waters of the Caribbean islands.

Earth's inhabitants didn't see a "Whole Earth" image until 1972, but environmental activist Stewart Brand had begun advocating for such photos to be released since the second half of the 1960s. "There we were in 1966, having seen a lot of the moon and a lot of hunks of the Earth, but never the complete mandala," said Brand, who published his first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968.

Roger D. Launius of the National Air and Space Museum wrote in 2009 that the whole Earth image helped spur the modern environmental movement. He quotes Archibald MacLeish: "To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together," MacLeish wrote in The New York Times on December 25, 1968, after the Apollo 8 spacecraft sent back an "Earthrise" image, calling the planet "that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night."

Launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on February 11 of this year, the DSCOVR satellite is a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force. Its primary goal is to monitor solar winds in real time, which NASA says "are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA." The EPIC instrument will provide data to measure ozone and aerosol levels in the atmosphere as well as cloud height, vegetation properties and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth, NASA adds, and will help construct dust and volcanic ash maps of Earth.

"As a former astronaut who's been privileged to view the Earth from orbit, I want everyone to be able to see and appreciate our planet as an integrated, interacting system," NASA administrator Charlie Bolden is quoted as saying in the agency's press release. "DSCOVR's observations of Earth, as well as its measurements and early warnings of space weather events caused by the sun, will help every person to monitor the ever-changing Earth, and to understand how our planet fits into its neighborhood in the solar system."

Shortly after NASA published its first EPIC image, President Barack Obama sent a tweet that echoed the environmental sentiments inspired by images of Earth decades ago:

Just got this new blue marble photo from @NASA. A beautiful reminder that we need to protect the only planet we have.

— President Obama (@POTUS44) July 20, 2015

EPIC will soon capture several images each day like the one released Monday, Cole says. The series will be published at a lag of 12 to 36 hours on a new dedicated website starting in September.