The Pale Blue Dot

10 Aug

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently, mainly on account of the Curiosity landing, though not just that. There has been quite a lot of exciting space-related news items and discoveries lately. It seems though whenever I start looking towards the heavens, I end up at the same place: the pale blue dot.

That’s a term coined by Carl Sagan, who amongst various other things worked on the Voyager mission. The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched (along with her sister ship Voyager 2) in the summer of 1977 on a mission to explore the outer planets of our solar system. Voyager 1 passed by Saturn and Jupiter before ‘slingshotting’ itself using Jupiter’s gravity towards the edge of our solar system. Voyager 2 passed by Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune before continuing towards the edge of our solar system (to this day Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune).

Voyager 1, having completed its primary mission of exploring Jupiter and Saturn was preparing to turn off some of its instruments, including its camera. Before this happened however, Sagan convinced the powers that be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to turn the camera back towards home one last time. Between February and June 1990, Voyager 1 snapped 60 images of our solar system, including pictures of all the planets (excluding Mercury, which was too close to the sun for it to show up). At a distance of a little over six billion kilometers, Voyager 1 took our first true Family Portrait.

Our Family Portrait, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of 6,000,000,000 km

And we saw ourselves. A fraction of a pixel, in a sunbeam, our entire history was before our eyes.

The Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan actually ended up naming his next book after this picture. And I can understand why. Whenever I wonder about space and look at the amazing images that we have captured of the cosmos using Hubble, or other amazing tools, my imagination starts to stir. But in looking at those images, one fact always remains: they are pictures of other places. This mosaic from Voyager 1 was a picture from “out there” looking back towards home.

It’s humbling.

Whether or not my rendition of Carl Sagan is to your liking (hit play on the video at the top of the page and decide for yourself), I hope that his words strike a chord. It’s an important piece of perspective.

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

As we continue to explore the cosmos, it’s nice to remember what home looks like.

A few interesting facts related to this post, but that didn’t fit into the narrative:

Both Voyager 1 & 2 continue to operate to this day, and continue to send back data. At the time of posting this, Voyager 1 is the more distant of the two spacecraft and it is 18,122,605,000 km away from Earth. At the speed of light it would take nearly 17 hours to travel that distance. Both Voyagers continue their journey towards interstellar space at speeds approaching 60,000 km/h.

In my video (at the top of the page), the grainy image of Earth with the Moon in the foreground was the first image ever taken of Earth from the Moon. It was taken on August 23, 1966 by the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft.

Also in my video is a picture of an astronaut standing in an open hatch while in orbit around Earth. That was on March 6, 1969 during the Apollo 9 mission. They were testing docking procedures in preparation for landing on the Moon, which happened in July 1969 during Apollo 11.

And finally, another historical image: the “you are here” image. That is the first image ever taken of the Earth from another planet. It was taken from Mars in March 2004 by the Spirit rover (one of the Mars Exploration Rovers). It’s a mosaic of images taken just before Martian sunrise.

“You Are Here” – Earth, as seen from Mars (March 2004)

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5 Responses to “The Pale Blue Dot”


  1. » In the shadow of a giant - August 17, 2012

    […] the main rings on the left side of the image. Earth is about 1.5 billion kilometres away – the pale blue dot that we all share. To spot Earth in the image at the top of the page you’ll probably need to […]

  2. » Happy 35th birthday Voyager 2! - August 20, 2012

    […] March 5, 1979 Closest approach to Saturn (124,000km): November 12, 1979 Took the famous “family portrait” and “pale blue dot” images: February-June […]

  3. » Happy 35th birthday Voyager 1! - September 5, 2012

    […] To read more fully about the Voyager mission you can read two of my previous blog posts on the subject: Happy 35th birthday Voyager 2 and The Pale Blue Dot. […]

  4. » Earth as seen from Mars in January 2014 @HarrisonRuess - February 15, 2014

    […] not to be forgotten is the famous Pale Blue Dot image captured by Voyager 1 from a distance of six billion kilometers in […]

  5. » Humans Explore: We Are Capable of Greatness, a new short by Space City Films @HarrisonRuess - January 1, 2015

    […] is always remarkable how well Carl captures the contrast between our problems here on the Pale Blue Dot and the potential for what we can […]

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