A satellite's very tiny camera took a very blurry picture of Earth — and it's perfect

a blurry image of a half shaded planet.
A distant, partly-shadowed Earth, as viewed from a 6,000 km-altitude orbit. (Image credit: ESA)

In a time when humanity has the means to procure almost unnaturally crisp images of the cosmos — from high-definition planetary portraits to massive deep space mosaics — there is something about the European Space Agency's new view of Earth that really gets me. It's blurry, the colors look kind of wrong, the planet isn't centered, half of the whole thing is shadowed, and honestly, it appears as though someone from the early 2000's took it with a flip phone. 

Part of the allure is of course the fact that this image, according to ESA, was captured with a camera about the size of a coin's edge aboard a satellite made of three also-very-miniature boxes. The satellite is called TRISAT-R, and as the mission's project manager Iztok Kramberger said in the image's announcement, "this tiny camera measuring less than two cubic millimeters in size took a picture of an object measuring approximately one trillion cubic kilometers — our beautiful planet Earth — from thousands of kilometers away."

But beyond that, on a personal level, I think staring at this image makes our planet feel somehow more… real? It feels like a reminder that we literally exist on an object floating out there in the universe — a tangible orb in the tangible fabric of space-time that we can take a picture of. Not only does this frame highlight how our species has reached a point where a camera, smaller than a fingernail, can fly 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) upward and snap a visual of our entire world, but it also makes clear that this is, in fact, a picture. By contrast, the James Webb Space Telescope's infrared complexities add a layer of distance between us and the galaxies it images; the sharpness of Apollo 17's "Blue Marble" Earth portrait is incredible, but can make the scene feel a bit surreal.

On my own camera roll, I have hundreds of randomly blurry pictures in between those fit for an Instagram post. If, somehow, I could go to space and take a bunch of iPhone pictures of Earth, one of them would surely look something like this. 

Related: These are the most detailed images of the moon ever taken on Earth

"If, somehow, I could go to space and take a bunch of iPhone pictures of Earth, one of them would surely look something like this."

If you're wondering why TRISAT-R took this image in the first place, the satellite, which is Slovenia's second such mission, flew out to medium-Earth orbit in 2022, bringing along some radiation-detection payloads and imaging devices. Basically, TRISAT-R's purpose is to help scientists study what goes on in parts of Earth's atmosphere called the Van Allen Radiation Belts

The Van Allen Radiation Belts are zones in our planet's outer shell that host lots of charged particles — NASA compares them to "enormous donuts." The outer belt holds particles originating from the sun, while the inner belt tends to have particles resulting from what are known as cosmic rays, which zoom through space at nearly the speed of light. TRISAT-R's trajectory, ESA says, will take it right through the inner belt as well as through the heart of Earth's ionosphere, the boundary between our planet's atmosphere and the expanse of space. There are lots of charged particles around there, too. 

The Blue Marble photo, captured by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7, 1972. (Image credit: NASA)

A distant, partly-shadowed Earth, as viewed from a 6,000 km-altitude orbit. (Image credit: ESA)

And in addition to those radiation-detection payloads that'll study these supercharged regions around Earth, scientists armed TRISAT-R with, yes, cameras. Alongside the satellite, the TRISAT-R team sent up super small cameras made with clear borosilicate glass lenses (a highly durable form of glass) mounted directly onto 320x320 pixel image sensors, according to the statement. That's where we get our wonderfully faulted view.

"The resulting picture of Earth is very low resolution as these highly miniaturized cameras were not intended to perform terrestrial imaging," Kramberger said. Plus, the researcher continued, the satellite employs rather weak "magnetorquers" that push against Earth's magnetic field for its attitude control, so precision pointing is difficult to achieve.

Kramberger explains that the team's main interest with regard to imagery was to capture examples of the so-called "Black Sun effect." This effect basically happens when over-saturation of pixels in an image can cause very bright areas to appear dark. 

"We have succeeded in these investigations, but have also been lucky enough to acquire images like these."

Quite lucky indeed.

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Monisha Ravisetti
Astronomy Channel Editor

Monisha Ravisetti is Space.com's Astronomy Editor. She covers black holes, star explosions, gravitational waves, exoplanet discoveries and other enigmas hidden across the fabric of space and time. Previously, she was a science writer at CNET, and before that, reported for The Academic Times. Prior to becoming a writer, she was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. She spends too much time playing online chess. Her favorite planet is Earth.

  • dv8inpp
    It looks like a Star Trek TOS planet
  • Securemale
    Admin said:
    ESA's TRISAT-R satellite has a camera that's only about the size of a coin, yet it managed to capture a view of our entire world.

    A satellite's very tiny camera took a very blurry picture of Earth — and it's perfect : Read more
    With all due respect, I find absolutely no joy in looking at a "blurry" picture of the planet on which we live. Please, all I ask is something just short of "professional". How about impressing me with a sharp and clear picture of my planet? Surely with all of the expensive junk currently orbiting Earth, someone can figure out how to point a decent camera towards Earth. Have them call me, I'll give them my iPhone. Or is our planet already so darn bad to look at that "blurry" pictures are easier to digest? I really think not. With everything from customer service to education becoming sub-standard (or as I call it, below average), it's time to get back to putting pride back into one's work. Impress me! By the way, how many professional pictures of Earth are there? Be honest!
  • Odin.Son
    This is so phony.
    I want my 24 billion a year back to the people yall been lying to.
    If only people knew how to spot the deceit.
  • billslugg
    The camera is not the size of a coin, it is the size of the edge of a coin. It is 2 cubic millimeters. This is why it is newsworthy.