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Pale Blue Crescent: Earth Photographed from Deep Space

Two Japanese spacecraft, one headed to Venus and another limpinghome from an asteroid, have beamed home snapshots of Earth that reveal ourplanet in different hues amid a sea of stars.

The latest photosof Earth come from Japan's brand new Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki and theHayabusa asteroid probe.

Akatsukilaunched May 20 alongside a novel solar sail vehicle and other smallerpayloads to begin a six-month trek toward the second planet from the sun.Hayabusa is returning to Earth from the asteroid Itokawa, which it visited in late2005 and is due to land in Australia in June.

The Technicolor Earth

The photos of Earthfrom space by Akatsuki reveal a stunning crescent as the planet appeared tothe probe's ultraviolet and infrared cameras.

In ultraviolet, the Earth appears as a dazzlingblue sliver, while the same crescent has a vibrant orange hue in infrared.Akatsuki (which means "Dawn" in Japanese) was flying about 155,342miles (250,000 km) from Earth when it photographed the planet.

Akatsuki also used its long-wave infrared camera to takea snapshot of the entire Earth, though the planet may be unrecognizable to theuninitiated. Earth's trademark blue oceans and white clouds are rendered onlyin black and white.

Japan's Akatsuki mission is expected to observe Venus inunprecedented detail to study its ever-present clouds and hidden surface. Thespacecraft is expected to reach Venus in December and spent two years studyingthe planet.

The IKAROS solar sail vehicle also launched with theAkatsuki probe and will make a pit stop at Venus before heading off to the farside of the sun. Both spacecraft are doing well, JAXA officials said.

Asteroid probe spies Earth

The other view of Earth is an ultra-long shot that cameearlier this month from Japan's beleaguered asteroid probe Hayabusa, whichmeans "Falcon" in Japanese.

Hayabusa photographed Earth and the moon, from adistance of nearly 8.4 million miles (13.5 million km) on May 12.

"The Earth was seen so brightly that the imagecontained [a] strong smear in it, but the image clearly separates the Moon from theEarth," officials with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) saidin a statement.

Hayabusa used the CCD sensor on its star tracker deviceto take the portrait of Earth and the moon as they hovered between theconstellations Sagittarius and Capricornus.

In the photo, the moon is clearly seen as a separatebright object to the left of Earth, which is so bright it overwhelmedHayabusa's sensor. Many stars, which Hayabusa's star tracker also picked up,are visible and can be identified in the image.

Homebound Hayabusa

Hayabusa launched in 2003 to visit the asteroid Itokawaand snatch samples of the space rock so they could be returned to Earth.

But the 950-pound (430-kg) spacecraft has suffered aseries of setbacks.

Telemetry has shown it did not fire the projectile deviceintended to kick up material from Itokawa's surface after it landed. Missionscientists hope that some material managed to enter Hayabusa's sample containerdespite the glitch.

A fuel leak, power outage and communications drop outbeset the probe during its seven-year voyage. Its ion engines have alsosuffered multiple failures, though JAXA engineers managed to revive somesystems and send the probe on a long detour through space in order to return itto Earth.

Hayabusa is currently on track to land in the Australianoutback sometime in June, about three years later than its original scheduledreturn.

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