It may look as if a cotton ball is floating over Mount Fuji in this satellite image, but it's actually a cloud — the kind of cloud that's known to give an otherworldly look to Japan's highest peak.
This picture was snapped by DigitalGlobe's WorldView 2 satellite on Sept. 20, and it's currently the front-runner in the company's contest to select the year's top image. Cast a vote for your favorite on DigitalGlobe's Facebook page, and check back in January to find out which picture wins out.
The perspective from above — 478 miles (770 kilometers) above, to be exact — just adds to the eerieness.
This cottony mountaintop picture is today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which serves up a fresh image of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Click on the links below to gather up the goodies you may have missed:
The Great Blue Hole is one of the natural wonders of the world, lying off the coast of Belize in the midst of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. It's a circular sinkhole measuring about 1,000 feet (300 meters) wide and more than 400 feet (124 meters) deep. It was apparently formed as part of a cave system tens of thousands of years ago, when sea levels were much lower. When the ocean's waters rose, the caves were flooded. The Great Blue Hole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which UNESCO has designated a World Heritage Site.
Archaeologists and historians say the reef system provided fishing grounds for Maya communities more than a millennium ago, and later served as a haven for 17th-century pirates and buccaneers. Today, the reef is a haven for scuba divers and for marine species at risk, including West Indian manatees and green turtles.
Saturn and its rings glow in a backlit, enhanced-color image from the Cassini orbiter. The picture combines images that were acquired using infrared, red and violet filters on Oct. 17. Two of Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Tethys, sparkle on the left side of the planet.
The holiday season is bringing beautiful baubles from outer space, including an unconventional view of Saturn from the Cassini orbiter, a gaudy nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope and a loopy picture of a supernova's leftovers. You can even send your own celestial season's greetings.
The Saturn picture, released today, marks the first time Cassini captured a backlit view of the ringed planet since 2006. That earlier photo made a huge splash, in part because the planet Earth could just barely be seen as a pale blue dot off to the side. This time, Earth is hidden behind Saturn, but you can spot two moons just to the left and below the planet: The closer speck is Enceladus, and Tethys is farther down and to the left.
This isn't the view that human eyes would see: Cassini's wide-angle camera snagged this picture in infrared, red and violet wavelengths from a distance of 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) behind Saturn on Oct. 17. The various views were assigned different colors in the visible-light spectrum to produce this eerie, otherworldly picture. Here's what Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team at the Colorado-based Space Science Institute, says about the image in today's "Captain's Log":
"Of all the many glorious images we have received from Saturn, none are more strikingly unusual than those we have taken from Saturn's shadow. They unveil a rare splendor seldom seen anywhere else in our solar system.
"This one is our special gift to you, the people of the world, in this holiday season that brings to a close the year 2012. We fervently hope it serves as a reminder that we humans, though troubled and warlike, are also the dreamers, thinkers, and explorers inhabiting one achingly beautiful planet, yearning for the sublime, and capable of the magnificent. We hope it reminds you to protect our planet with all your might and cherish the life it so naturally sustains.
"From all of us on Cassini, the happiest of holidays to everyone."
The Hubble Space Telescope's science team is also rolling out the holiday goodies, with a twisty planetary nebula known as NGC 5189 serving as the centerpiece. "The intricate structure of this bright gaseous nebula resembles a glass-blown holiday ornament with a glowing ribbon entwined," the Hubble team says in today's photo advisory.
NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage
A holiday image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the planetary nebula NGC 5189. The image was captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on Oct. 8.
Planetary nebulae like NGC 5189 are formed when a medium-sized star like our sun enters the last stages of its life, and puffs away its outer shells of glowing gas. This nebula's swirly structure is thought to be due to the influence of an unseen companion star that's stirring the pot, gravitationally speaking.
The picture was taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, one of the instruments that was installed during the telescope's final servicing mission in 2009. The camera's filters were tuned to the specific wavelengths of fluorescing sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, plus broad filters in visible and near-infrared wavelengths to capture the star colors.
The National Optical Astronomy Observatory and WIYN Consortium are also putting out a glittery end-of-the-year picture of the Cygnus Loop, a giant supernova remnant that glows 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. The observations were made in 2003 by astronomer Richard Cool, using the NOAO Mosaic 1 camera on the WIYN 0.9-meter telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
The Cygnus Loop shines in a picture released by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the WIYN Consortium.
Back then, the computing power wasn't sufficient to process the picture's 600 million pixels into a single, full-resolution color image. Now the telescope observations have been re-reduced and reprocessed by Travis Rector at the University of Alaska at Anchorage to produce the version released today. "Images like this are amazing, because they can remind you of the big picture and beauty that surrounds us," Cool said in NOAO's image advisory.
These pictures are cool enough for Christmas cards, but if you need a little inspiration for your last-minute mailing list, the teams behind NASA's Great Observatories can help: The Space Telescope Science Institute's Hubble Web site offers printable holiday cards. The team behind the Chandra X-Ray Observatory has e-cards suitable for a variety of occasions. You can turn to Zazzle or CafePress to order greeting cards featuring imagery from the Spitzer Space Telescope.
A stereo picture from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA's Terra shows an ash plume rising from Sicily's Mount Etna Volcano on Oct. 29, 2002. Wear red-blue glasses to see the 3-D effect.
You need standard red-blue glasses to experience the stereo effect, but once you put on your specs, you're in for a treat: The 3-D view makes it easier to judge the relative heights of the ash plume and the surrounding clouds.
If you don't have special glasses, you can still get a sense of the volcano's power by checking out the 2-D, natural-color view from Terra's Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer. There's even a 3-second QuickTime animation that puts together a series of snaps from the satellite flyover.
This picture of Etna was the focus of today's "Where in the Cosmos" contest on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It took a few minutes for Hong Yaw Lim, Ryan Posey and Krystyn Allison-In Oneness to identify the mystery volcano, but to reward their efforts, I'm sending them pairs of cardboard 3-D glasses, provided courtesy of Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope project. Press the "like" button for the Facebook page and get ready for the next 3-D glasses giveaway after the first of the year.
This is also today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features a different view of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. For more visual treats, check out the links below:
The movies based on "The Lord of the Rings" and now "The Hobbit" have turned a spotlight on the dramatic landscapes of New Zealand, and this image from about 450 miles up gives you a wide-screen perspective on a modern-day Middle Earth.
The readings that went into creating the nearly cloud-free view of the Pacific island nation were captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA's Terra satellite during passes in late 2002. That's just about the time that the second movie in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Two Towers," was making a splash at the box office.
Now New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson has come out with the first movie of his next trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of dwarfs and hobbits, a dragon and a treasure in a mythical place called Middle Earth. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" grabbed plenty of box-office treasure this weekend — $84.8 million, which translates into the best-ever three-day opening in December. (On the overall ranking for three-day openings, however, "The Hobbit" is No. 40.)
New Zealand is hoping for treasure as well: It provided more than $100 million in support for the moviemakers, and hopes to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in tourist trade sparked by the films. The country provided the backdrop for film locales ranging from the pastures of Hobbiton (near Matamata) to the volcanoes of Mordor (near Taupo). The airport in Wellington, which is New Zealand's capital as well as the home of Jackson's film operation, calls itself "the Middle of Middle Earth." Air New Zealand is now known as the "airline of Middle Earth."
From a cosmic perspective, our planet has a peaceful beauty — no matter what tumult is raging far below. That's the message NASA astronaut Ron Garan wanted to send with this picture of the northeastern United States. Today, if you could zoom in far enough on this view today, you could see the anguish left behind in the wake of Friday's horrible school shooting in Connecticut.
"When we look at Earth from space, we are faced with a sobering contradiction," Garan writes on his Google+ page. "On the one hand is the beauty of our planet, on the other is the unfortunate reality of life on our planet for many of her inhabitants. Our prayers are with the victims and families in Connecticut. #LoveConquersAll"
Garan wasn't the first human to reflect on the cosmic perspective produced by outer-space views: Astronauts and philosophers have long talked about the "Overview Effect," the sense of planetary unity that arises when you see Earth as an object suspended in space. Just this month, a group known as Planetary Collective unveiled an online video documentary exploring the phenomenon.
And then there's Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and writer who passed away 16 years ago this month. He helped persuade NASA to turn the camera on its Voyager 1 deep-space probe back toward Earth in 1990, to capture a priceless picture of our "pale blue dot" as a speck in outer space.
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," Sagan wrote. "To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
Forty years ago today, human beings took their last steps on the moon, and had their last look at Earth framed by the lunar horizon. There have been other pictures from the moon since then, of course, but they've all been seen secondhand, based on data sent back by robotic probes. No humans have seen an Earthrise like this one with their own eyes since Apollo 17's crew began their homeward journey on Dec. 14, 1972.
For Andrew Chaikin — author of "A Man on the Moon," the definitive history of the Apollo moon effort — the 40th anniversary of our lunar farewell is a cause for reflection.
When Chaikin was a 16-year-old outer-space fanatic, he attended Apollo 17's night launch at Kennedy Space Center, thanks to a letter he wrote to his congressman asking for a VIP pass. "It was the only part of 'Man on the Moon' that I wrote from personal experience," he told me.
Chaikin said the 12-day mission ended the Apollo program "on the highest note possible."
"By the time of Apollo 17, those guys — not just the astronauts, but the flight controllers and the planners, the whole team — they were really on top of their game," Chaikin said. "It was a spectacular mission scientifically. They landed in an absolutely spectacular place. They took some of the most memorable photographs of all the Apollo missions."
Today, Chaikin posted a video that sums up the significance of Apollo 17 as well as the importance of keeping the moon on our agenda for exploration. The five-minute clip includes an amazing view of the lunar module's ascent module rising into the sky, transmitted from a remote-control video camera that was left on the moon's surface.
Chaikin hopes that astronauts will follow through on the implied promise in the words that Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan spoke just before climbing up from the lunar surface: "We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind," Cernan said.
Five days later, Cernan and his two crewmates, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans, rode their command module through Earth's atmosphere and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean — marking the end of NASA's last round trip to the moon. Most Americans weren't even alive when that happened. So how many people living today will still be around when the next moonwalk takes place?
"I don't think we realize how exciting it's going to be when we can see the moon rise, knowing that people are living there, working to make humans a multiplanet species," Chaikin says in the video. "And when they come home, they can share with us one of the moon's most precious gifts: the sight of the earth, breathtakingly beautiful as an oasis of life in the void."
To mark the 40th anniversary of the last human footsteps on the moon, "Man on the Moon" author Andrew Chaikin looks back at Apollo 17's explorations and explains why he believes the moon is the solar system's "jewel in the crown," beckoning us to return.
Today's anniversary, recalling our species' grandest voyages, comes amid a shocking episode in Connecticut that highlights our species' violent tendencies. It was that way for the Aurora theater shootings as well, which took place on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Will there ever come a time when the brighter side of our nature, exemplified by the peaceful Apollo program, finally wins out over the dark side? That's one more thing to reflect on over the weekend...
Here are some of your own reflections, selected from the comments you've left over the past week on earlierinstallments of our Apollo 17 coverage:
"December of 2022 isn't that far away. At the rate we are going, and with the uncertainty and lack of focus we are experiencing regarding our manned space exploration program, I'm afraid the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission will pass without any new footprints having been made on the moon's surface by American astronauts.
"How would our lives be today if after 20 or 30 flights the Wright brothers dismantled their airplane and no one else flew for the next 50 years?
"Are we any better off now for not having continued our manned flights to the moon, and perhaps beyond?
"Will we sleep forever? America must awaken or we will find ourselves trailing behind the new leaders who will pick up the torch we long ago dropped.
"Awaken, American spirit of exploration! Arise as you once did so long ago! I miss you."
"That flight stood out, like the first flight to the moon. I can remember some of the highlights: a geologist looking at rocks, giving a reason to go to space beyond the Cold War; the 'blue marble' and a reminder that we are the one habitable planet in the solar system, so we had better keep this planet healthy. The 'Merry Merry Month of December' was funny, but at the time, also a little bit of concern: There was a worry that the breathing apparatus had a problem. What made him sing was the low gravity; he found it fun to skip on the moon because each jump covered a lot of distance, and that was visible on television (something the moonshot deniers should notice).
"I don't think of them as the last astronauts on the moon, but the most recent. It was a shock when my daughter saw videos of Neil Armstrong's moon landing in school, and I realized that another moon landing had not happened in her life. She is much older now, and my grandson has never seen a moon landing, and more and more funding is being cut, even though information from the space program is still coming to us. Look at the information from the asteroid projects and the xenon rocket. The space program is such a small part of our budget as is. It seems that every time budgets are cut, the space program suffers, schools suffer, and children have less and less to feel proud of."
"The next step for mankind is to become a celestial being. Short of that, mankind is destined to become just become one more extinct species in the vast cosmos. It is only by moving out into that vast cosmos that we see a true reflection of ourselves."
"In 1969, I sat in my sister's living room with my grandmother and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. My grandmother reminisced about her life as we watched. Her father took part in the run for Indian Territory in Oklahoma. She and her siblings stayed with relatives in St. Louis while her parents built a cabin to house them. She liked to stand in the window and watch the lamplighter come around with his horse and buggy to light the gas street lights. She was educated on the farm by an old Cherokee woman who had been to finishing school in Europe, but forced on the long 'trail of tears' march to Indian Territory in 1838-39. She lost all of her family on the way. My great-grandfather eventually sold the farm and bought a store in town. Grandma married a farmer and moved back to Indian Territory, where she raised nine children without the benefit of electricity. All their water was carried from the creek, light was provided by kerosene lanterns and homemade candles. My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can never fully appreciate the grandeur of the moment as seen through my grandmother's eyes. It was an epic accomplishment and I have no doubt that we will return — to the moon and to many other worlds."
"We truly are a great nation at times — if only we'd remember that."
"My fear is that, in this day and age, America will go to the moon (and/or Mars) and treat it in the usual, selfish, utilitarian way. We have already screwed this planet up. Now they are considering going elsewhere. Of course, once we're there, we'll screw that up too. Here's an 'out-of-this-world' thought: Focus on population control and conservation to limit how badly we're screwing up the one and only world we're ever going to have."
"Planting a radio telescope on the far side of the moon, shielded from the radio noise generated by all of our technology, might well provide the kind of scientific bonanza that Hubble has created.
"That's what's lacking in most the moon mission proposals: the promise of being able to carry out some real science. Most of the proponents of a lunar return offer little more than, 'It would be neat to go back and look around some more.' That's a little vague, given the cost and danger involved."
Pb in CA:
"Somebody explain to me why going to the surface of the moon is valuable. There is nothing there of any value. OK, I've heard the idea of building a radio receiver on the far side. But, it would be more cost-effective to build a very-long-baseline radio receiver system using a fleet of satellites that stay in low-moon orbit, and half the time are shielded from earth radio noise.
"If we are willing to accept the fact that robots are much better adapted to carrying out missions in space, then we can have a sustainable, affordable space exploration program. The Augustine Commission got it right in this regard. Personally, I have no problem in thinking of robots as extensions of humans, and saying 'we are exploring the surface of Mars' currently with Curiosity.
"Here are the advantages of robots vs. humans on the moon: - Robots can stay indefinitely - no return trip to Earth - Energy supply is sun power - no need to take air, food and water - Very close communication to humans back on Earth - 2.5-second round trip - Cost of a mission is 1:2000 compared to sending humans
"What is gained by sending humans?"
"I can't believe that we are trillions of dollars in debt and the government is seriously considering cutting health care for the elderly — but we can even consider borrowing money to go to the moon. Clean up the mess, then spend money on 'toys.' America can't afford this right now."
"Yes, we're in bad shape here on Earth. In many ways. But we were born to look out and dream ... to explore. We went to the moon ... we have rovers on Mars, [including] one working years after it was supposed to die. Voyager 1 is reaching the end of our solar system, and will soon be beyond it — our first UFO. If we don't go back to the moon ... go to Mars ... [and] go beyond that someday, when we solve our petty differences here on Earth and put our minds to developing the mechanism to go outward into the unknown, what do we have to look forward to? What do young people have to dream about? When I stand outside on a clear night and look out at all the stars, I often wonder if anyone is looking back. Looking back and dreaming of places unknown and things never before seen, just as I am."
In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's lunar departure, this Earthrise serves as today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from outer space on a daily basis from now until Christmas. Check out these other holiday goodies:
Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger captured this flash of a Geminid fireball over the city lights of Fort Smith, Ark., early Thursday, using a camera that was set up on Mount Magazine, the state's highest point. For more about Emfinger, check out his website, RealClearWX.com.
Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger says the best meteor he ever captured on camera happened while he was napping.
"Definitely the brightest meteor I've ever imaged," he said today. "If I was awake, it would have been the brightest meteor I've ever seen."
Emfinger, who snaps pictures of storms and sky phenomena for his RealClearWX website, said the Geminid fireball streaked over the skyline of Fort Smith, Ark., at around 1:07 a.m. CT Thursday, while he was in the midst of an all-night meteor photography session.
The Geminid meteor shower is the year's most reliable display of shooting stars, reaching its peak annually on the night of Dec. 13-14. By most accounts, this was a great year for the Geminids, due to a moonless sky and a meteor tally that reportedly peaked at levels well above the typical 100 to 120 per hour. The flashes occur when bits of debris left behind by an extinct comet known as Phaeton burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
Like many meteor fans, Emfinger was watching the skies not only on the peak night, but on the preceding nights as well. On Wednesday night, he drove up to the top of Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, and then set up a fisheye camera to take pictures automatically. Sometime after midnight, he settled in for a nap in his car.
A while later, he got a call on his cell phone from a friend who reported seeing something like lightning flashes on the horizon ... on a clear night. "He was assuming it was some spectacular meteor," Emfinger recalled.
As soon as he could, Emfinger checked the shots that were stored on his camera. "I scrolled through them real quick — and there it was, descending toward the skyline of Fort Smith," he said. Observers in Oklahoma and other westward states also reported seeing the fireball, Emfinger said.
That blaze of celestial glory wasn't this week's only Geminid highlight. Scroll down below for other scenes from the past couple of nights. It's important to remember that the show isn't over yet: Although the Geminids have passed their peak, there's still a chance to see a fair number of meteors tonight and tomorrow night. Keep a watch on SpaceWeather.com's gallery for still more meteor photos.
One more thing: In advance of the peak, some experts speculated that there might be a separate wave of meteors that would have been known as the Piscids, sparked by the debris left behind by Comet Wirtanen. These meteors would appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Pisces, rather than the Geminids' point of origin in Gemini. However, I've seen no reports of significant sightings on Thursday night — which suggests that the Piscid meteor shower was a no-show.
Brian Emfinger / RealClearWX
Photographer (and storm chaser) Brian Emfinger captured a bright Geminid fireball on camera early today from Mount Magazine State Park in Arkansas. "My camera caught a bunch of meteors, the most I've ever gotten in any one night of shooting meteors," Emfinger told SpaceWeather.com. Check out Emfinger's website, RealClearWX.com.
The green glow you see above was captured on camera last week by Chad Blakley, the photographer behind Lights Over Lapland in Sweden. "It's aurora season in Abisko National Park," he writes. Blakley runs nightly photo tours in the park when the northern lights are active. To see more of his work, visit the Lights Over Lapland website or Facebook page.
National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss has also been getting some amazing auroral views, thanks to a photo assignment that took him to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory. Theiss rented a car and drove hundreds of miles farther north to the Arctic Circle. He's been using his Twitter account (@MikeTheiss) to share a series of pictures from his Arctic adventure — including an amazing shot that shows a meteor streak shooting through the auroral lights. You can see that picture below.
We're also including a Christmas bonus: Time-lapse videos from Vimeo and YouTube that incorporate Blakley's and Theiss' pictures. If you're able to, watch them full screen with HD resolution.
Tonight's early reports suggest that this year's Geminid display is shaping up as a great show. If you snap a picture of the meteors — or the northern lights, for that matter — please consider sharing it with us via NBC News' FirstPerson photo upload page for sky highlights. If I get enough pictures, I'll pass them along on Friday.
Mike Theiss / National Geographic
Mike Theiss' picture from Canada's Yukon Territory features ripples of the northern lights - plus a meteor streak that can be seen on the right side.
Mike Theiss' time-lapse video of the northern lights includes the Arctic Circle marker in the foreground.
Today's pictures also provide a different twist on the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which usually features a daily view of Earth from space during the holiday season. Today, we're highlighting views of space from Earth. To catch up on past calendar entries, follow the links below:
The Tokyo Skytree is considered the world's tallest broadcasting tower and the second-tallest human-made structure, so you should expect it to cast a blocks-long shadow on its surroundings in Japan's capital. The only building taller is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — which rises 2,717 feet high, compared with the 2,080-foot Skytree.
The Skytree offers a restaurant and observation decks as well as broadcasting facilities for eight TV networks and two FM radio stations. There's a shopping arcade next door that includes a planetarium and aquarium. The complex had its official opening in May and is expected to draw 32 million visitors a year — which is more than Tokyo Disneyland's typical tally.
This picture of the Skytree and its tall shadow was captured on April 7 by one of DigitalGlobe's orbiting satellites, and ranks among the company's top 20 images for 2012. Facebook users have been invited to press their "like" buttons to vote for their favorite pictures over the next week. On Dec. 19, the field will be narrowed down to the top five — and then there'll be a Facebook vote for the year's top satellite picture. Check out DigitalGlobe's blog for more about the contest.
For more awe-inspiring sights from space, click through these past entries from our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. We're featuring a fresh view of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. And because you've been extra good this year, I've added a couple of Web links to other cosmic Advent calendars:
Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 13: At one point I added a phrase saying that Burj Khalifa was six stories higher than the Tokyo Skytree, but as a few commenters have pointed out, those would be mighty big stories, at roughly 100 feet per story. Sixty stories would be closer to the mark. Thanks for pointing out the estimating error, and apologies for getting it wrong.
In the 40 years since NASA's last lunar landing, the moon has had its ups and downs as the target for humanity's next giant leap — but the idea of returning to the moon is on the rise again.
Even though President Barack Obama dissed the moon a couple of years ago as a "been there, done that" destination, there's an enduring appeal to our closest celestial neighbor. Part of the appeal comes from planetary science, part of it comes from the moon's potential as a close-in gateway to the solar system — but a big part of it has to do with the moon's hold on our imagination, which took root before the pyramids were built.
When Apollo 17 touched down on Dec. 11, 1972, marking the final lunar landing of the Apollo program, the moon was the agreed-upon finish line for the Cold War's space race. But now the world has changed, and the case for going to the moon is more complicated.
"I've been referring to the moon as the Rodney Dangerfield of the solar system," said Andrew Chaikin, author of "Man on the Moon," the definitive history of the Apollo space program.
The moon hasn't gotten much respect in the past couple of years: After Obama's comment, the White House effectively canceled NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon program. Instead, NASA set its sights on a visit to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and manned trips to Mars in the 2030s. Today, however, there are signs that the idea of going back to the moon isn't that loony after all:
Two dozen teams are bearing down to try winning the multimillion-dollar Google Lunar X Prize, which goes to the first private venture to send a rover to the moon for a trek to be broadcast on live TV. Two of the teams, Odyssey Moon and SpaceIL, joined forces last month in hopes of taking the grand prize by the end of 2015.
NASA has floated the idea of setting up a new space station at a gravitational balance point beyond the far side of the moon, known as Earth-moon L2. The concept is currently stuck in political limbo, however.
John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, says Obama's next presidential term could provide the opening for a lunar comeback.
"It's certainly in the air here, that changes in the planning for exploration are coming," he said. "There's enough negative pressure that this asteroid goal isn't working, and enough positive pressure to work with the international community that wants to go back to the moon, that the White House will at some point approve the beginnings of a shift in exploration strategy — in which the moon, or at least the space between the earth and the vicinity of the moon, gets a much higher profile."
One of the early test missions for NASA's next-generation heavy-lift rocket — the Space Launch System, or SLS — would involve sending an unmanned Orion capsule all the way around the moon and back in the 2017 time frame. The first crewed mission, set for 2021, would put up to four astronauts into lunar orbit. "It could just as well be an initial mission to this Earth-moon L2 location," Logsdon said.
In September, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver declared that lunar missions would be part of the agency's grand scheme. "We're going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars," she said.
Why go? Chaikin, who has taken on the back-to-the-moon concept as his next crusade, said lunar missions could serve three purposes.
The first aim would be to study the preserved history of the solar system — following up on a scientific story that the Apollo missions were just beginning to uncover. "I really think the moon deserves to be called a Rosetta stone, because it has unlocked our understanding of how we interpret the clues that we see on other worlds," Chaikin said.
Just as importantly, the moon serves as an "Outward Bound" school for farther space exploration. If a mission goes wrong, NASA could bring the astronauts back in a matter of days — rather than the weeks that an asteroid mission would involve, or the months required for a trip from Mars.
And then there's a phenomenon called the Overview Effect, which could conceivably attract lunar tourists a generation or two from now. "The moon is the only place in the solar system where you can stand on another world and have a consciousness-raising view of Earth," like the view that the Apollo 17 astronauts marveled at 40 years ago, Chaikin explained.
But Chaikin also warns against getting bogged down on the moon. That was the problem with the Constellation program. It called for a permanent settlement to be established on the moon in the 2020s. The cost? You don't want to know. Chaikin said it's better to use the moon "to learn about living off-planet" — to learn how to make use of the moon's water, dirt and rocks, for instance — and then move on to Mars.
The way Chaikin sees it, Apollo 17 was a beautiful ending to one era. Now it's time for the next one.
"Apollo 17 ended the program on a spectacular note," he said. "You can interpret that one of two ways. You can say, wonderful, they found a great way to end it. To some people at NASA, it was just the right time to get out. But on the other hand, here it is, 40 years later, and we're still waiting for someone to pick up where Apollo 17 left off. If we can do that, with the same level of scientific exploration, we'll be in great shape."
In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's lunar landing, the picture of astronaut Harrison Schmitt with the American flag beside him and a tiny Earth above him serves as today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from outer space on a daily basis from now until Christmas. Check out these other holiday goodies:
This photograph, taken on Nov. 9 from the International Space Station, shows a rugged range of Asian peaks. Initially the mountains were identified as the Himalayas, with Mount Everest in the center, but since then experts on the region have said the picture actually shows a different mountain range.
Some of the highest mountains in the world were far below Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko when he took this picture a month ago from the International Space Station. Now Malenchenko has come back down to Earth, but the picture has been getting sky-high attention from the Twitterverse — in part because of a debate over what it shows.
Peter Caltner, a.k.a. @PC0101, put the picture into his Twitpic feed on Saturday, calling it an outer-space view of Mount Everest. NASA astronaut Ron Garan — a recent space station resident known on Twitter as @Astro_Ron — picked up on the pic with a tweet of his own. "I never got a good shot of Mt. Everest from space," he wrote. In a follow-up, Garan explained to The Atlantic's Rebecca J. Rosen why he missed out on that Everest snapshot.
Since then, folks who are familiar with the area have tweeted that the picture shows a different range of mountains. "This is ... Sasan Kangari — near India, Pakistan and Tibet border," Phalano reported.
This picture isn't the only gem from Malenchenko: Caltner's Twitpic gallery features more of the cosmonaut's outer-space photos — including new nighttime views of St. Louis, Tokyo and the Sea of Brightness off the coast of South Korea. Check 'em out. And while you're at it, check out these other views of our planet from above. They're part of the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features a daily look at Earth from space, every day from now until Christmas:
Correction for 6:50 p.m. ET: I've updated the original version of this item with the "Is it Everest, or isn't it?" debate. The Atlantic updated its original item with a different picture of Everest, taken in 2004.