Thirty years ago, a spacecraft, bound for the edges of the solar system, turned back toward Earth and took a picture.
The image, shown below, came to be known as “Pale Blue Dot.” It was captured on February 14, 1990, by Voyager 1, a robotic explorer built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft had flown past Jupiter and Saturn and sent beautiful close-ups and exciting scientific data back to Earth. After Saturn, the spacecraft was destined to spend its remaining years in deep space. There would be nothing but darkness, punctuated occasionally by the twinkle of distant stars. There was no reason to keep Voyager’s cameras on for that, and NASA wanted to conserve the spacecraft’s power. So, before turning the cameras off, NASA engineers directed Voyager to take one last look at home.
In the photo, three dusky beams of color—sunlight light scattered by the cameras—cut at an angle against the charcoal darkness of space. Inside one of the beams, near its middle, is a faint speck of light blue. From 3.7 billion miles away, you’d have to squint to see us.
The view inspired the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who came up with the idea for the final glimpse, to write his most famous words, in his 1994 book:
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.
A mote of dust indeed. No offense to Sagan, but when I saw “Pale Blue Dot” for the first time, I was underwhelmed. It was the summer of 2015 and I had accompanied my friend Amanda Cormier to a tattoo parlor in Washington, D.C., where she got the image inked on her left forearm, just above the elbow. She picked color ink: red, green, and yellow for the streaks of light, blue for Earth, and red for a little arrow that points at the dot. I looked up the real image while I waited. Huh, I thought. That’s pretty fuzzy. Can’t really see anything.