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Pale Blue Dot of the Most Beautiful Photograph of Earth


A portrait of the planet in the middle of space (and all possible reflections)...

From 6.4 billion kilometers away, the Earth looks like a speck of illuminated dust. On February 14, 1990, nearly 30 years ago, the Voyager 1 space probe, then moving away from the planet to explore the Solar System, turned to look back toward home. It was so far away that it seemed like a minute point, a miniature that shone among the imposing rays of the Sun. It’s one of the most famous photographs of the Earth, although, within the image, Earth is but a small blue dot, pale and moving.

In September 1977, NASA had launched Voyager 1 to explore the Solar System and, eventually, outer space, too. In 1979, the probe passed Jupiter and a year later, in 1980, Saturn, managing to capture never before seen images of both planets and their moons. In November of that same year, the probe’s original mission was declared complete. But contrary to the prediction, the probe continued to function and to travel through space. Some 40 years later, like its twin the Voyager 2, the probe bears within it one of but two of the Golden Records which describe humanity and the planet we inhabit in sounds and images.

When Voyager 1 was moving away from Saturn in 1980, Carl Sagan (one of the project heads) requested that the probe turn back towards Earth to photograph it. The scientist knew that the image would be of little scientific utility due to the distance, but he maintained that its capture would give a notion of the size of the Earth and its relationship with the other bodies in the Solar System. The photograph was not taken, as many of the other project directors feared that photographing the Earth so close to the Sun might damage the probe’s cameras. It wasn’t until 1989 that Sagan’s request was reconsidered. Once it had been decided that the photograph would be taken, the probe’s calibration systems had to be modified in a process that took a year to complete.

A photograph of the earth taken from Voyager 1.

Of the two high-resolution cameras carried on Voyager 1, it was that with a 1,500-millimeter, narrow angle lens which captured the image to be titled Pale Blue Dot. The title would also be used for Carl Sagan’s book which later beautifully explored both philosophy and science.

The sensation evoked by the photograph is both strange and difficult to explain in words. It seems, perhaps, like the feeling we get when one catches one’s face unexpectedly in a mirror, or in a photograph taken without our having realized it. Perhaps it’s because the image shows us our profound fragility and our true scale. In a lecture given by Carl Sagan at Cornell University in 1994, the scientist and philosopher described the implications of the image beautifully:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

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