One of the greatest images ever taken wasn’t captured by a photographer physically, but rather a spacecraft — Voyager 1. On February 14, 1990, at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1 captured the Pale Blue Dot, an image of Earth less than a pixel in size from outside our solar system.
Voyager 1 is the farthest human spacecraft to ever leave our solar system, and Pale Blue Dot shows us just how incredibly small we are. We are less than a pixel in a vast, infinite universe, and human history is only a fraction of its history. Our time here has been marred by wars, disease, genocides, but we have also taken giant strides exploring space and creating technology for the betterment of humankind.
Humans invented photography, which is less than 200 years old, to document our world and others. We’ve gone from cyanotype to film to digital images, and this medium is a mere infant in the course of human history. Photography has given us the ability to capture significant moments, including the atrocities human beings are capable of committing, but also the beautiful, serendipitous moments.
Pale Blue Dot has inspired many people, and one of the most famous was Carl Sagan, a cosmologist, astrophysicist, and master of explaining the universe to the common man with his television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
Carl Sagan wrote Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space after being inspired by this powerful photograph. In his book he explores our place in the universe, and aptly sums up our existence in this passage:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, 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.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. 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.
— Carl Sagan
One of the greatest images ever taken wasn’t by a photographer tripping the shutter, but instead a human made spacecraft on its way to where no human has been. Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and even the New Horizon spacecrafts are traveling through space and time to provide us with a better view of what and who we are, and what our place is in the cosmos.
Pale Blue Dot is one the most important photographs ever made in human history, but there are millions more on their way whether they come from the confines of Earth or are sent from a satellite.