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Kids get their very own 'Earthrise'

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT / SRS

This view of the lunar far side with Earth in the background was taken by the MoonKAM system on NASA's Ebb spacecraft on March 17. A little more than halfway up and on the left side is the crater De Forest. The crater is near the south pole and receives sunlight at an oblique angle when it's on the illuminated half of the moon.

More than 45 years after the first "Earthrise" picture, fourth-graders got to pick their own shot of our home planet peeking over the moon's horizon, courtesy of NASA's GRAIL mission.

The new views of Earth from the moon are included in GRAIL's first batch of student-selected images, snapped by the Ebb spacecraft's MoonKAM camera from March 15 to 18 and released today. Ebb and its twin, Flow, are orbiting the moon to study the lunar gravity field — and students get to choose what the small cameras on the washing-machine-sized orbiters take pictures of.

"MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees," MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber, GRAIL's principal investigator, said in a NASA news release. "Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start."

The first targets were selected by fourth-grade students from Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont. They earned that honor as a reward for coming up with the names for the spacecraft, Ebb and Flow, during a nationwide competition last year. (Before the names were unveiled, the probes were known merely as GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B.)

More than 2,700 schools in 52 countries are in the pool for target selection. Suggestions for picture-taking are funneled through the GRAIL MoonKam Mission Operations Center, at the University of California in San Diego. The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, who became NASA's first woman astronaut in 1983 and is now president and CEO of an educational company called Sally Ride Science.

"What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have an profound impact on their futures," Ride said in today's news release. "The students really are excited about MoonKam, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering."

Ebb is only the latest camera to snap that iconic shot of Earth over moon's horizon. The first such picture from a NASA probe came on Aug. 23, 1966, during preparations for the Apollo moon shots, when the unmanned Lunar Orbiter 1 sent a black-and-white picture back to Earth.

Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell recounts 1968's history-making odyssey from Earth to the moon and back.

The best-known Earthrise picture is the one that Apollo 8's crew made famous in 1968, but even after the Apollo program ended in 1972, robotic probes have periodically sent back fresh views of our planet as seen from deep space. Japan's Kaguya orbiter, for example, captured a high-definition Earthrise on video in 2008.

Japan's Kaguya spacecraft captures Earthrise on April 5, 2008. Credit: JAXA/NHK

Some experts believe seeing Earth from this perspective gives viewers more of an appreciation for its beauty and fragility, leading to a spiritual phenomenon known as the "Overview Effect." Will today's fourth-graders get a chance to experience Earthrise and the Overview Effect in person? I'd like to think so, but what do you think?

More views from space:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.