# Why can we see the earth from outer space if the sky is blue?

As far as I know, the sky is blue because as light from the sun enters the atmosphere composed primarily of wavelengths of visible light. However, as the light happens across molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the air, they have a small chance of scattering off, and the shorter wavelength photons such as blue light have much more chance of scattering. Hence, the reds and oranges sort of pass through the atmosphere in a straight beam, whereas the blues and greens get scattered around the place randomly, meaning that the sky appears pale blue.

If, however, the scattering is random, then shouldn't just as many blue photons be sent flying back out to space as make it to our eyes on the ground? Why aren't all pictures we take from space of the earth blue? I can understand if the effect is not very prominent, but in all of these pictures the effect seems almost non-existent. Is there a flaw in my understanding, or is the effect just a lot smaller than I thought it would be?

• Hm, good question. I would have thought it would be because the scattering takes place mostly in the forward direction, but in fact it has a $(1+\cos^2\theta)$ dependence which means light is equally likely to be scattered backwards. Hopefully someone else can follow this up into an actual answer. Nov 3, 2015 at 7:41
• I think wikipedia let this very clear. Yes, the intensity of light scattered in one direction, $\theta$, is proportional to $(1+\cos^2\theta)$, but what is important is the average of the scattering in all direction, which gives the $\textit{ Rayleigh scattering cross-section}$. Then, the fraction of light scattered by a group of "scattering particles" is the number of particles per unit volume times the cross-section. It also brings an example.
– raul
Nov 3, 2015 at 8:56
• "the major constituent of the atmosphere, nitrogen, has a Rayleigh cross section of $5.1\times 10^{−31} m^2$ at a wavelength of 532 nm (green light). This means that at atmospheric pressure, where there are about $2×10^25$ molecules per cubic meter, about a fraction $10^{-5}$ of the light will be scattered for every meter of travel."
– raul
Nov 3, 2015 at 8:56
• Standing on Earth, you look up through the glowing blue sky at the absolute blackness of space. Up in Earth orbit, you look down through the glowing blue sky at clouds, oceans, and land forms that are all illuminated by blazing sunlight. Nov 3, 2015 at 22:02