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.
Now, after more than three years of writing about space, I still think the “pale blue dot” isn’t much to look at. But when I sit with it and really think about what’s inside the frame, I am in awe.
Looking at this distant view of Earth, I feel the same way I do when I watch astronauts spacewalk outside of the International Space Station on NASA’s live-streams. The camera quality is grainy, the sound is staticky, and astronauts rattle off indecipherable jargon in serious voices. It is, if you watch seven straight hours of it, pretty boring. But when you consider what the astronauts are really doing—not the slow and meticulous work of turning bolts and replacing batteries—the experience becomes something else. Human beings figured out how to build a home for themselves in the cold vacuum of space, filled with everything they need to survive, from breathable air to streaming TV and snacks, and now they’re dangling off the side of the whole thing as it travels at 17,000 miles per hour, and the only thing keeping them from floating into oblivion is a couple of fabric tethers. It is extraordinary. “Pale Blue Dot” is remarkable in a similar way—a display, however fuzzy, of humankind’s capacity to catapult away from our planet in an attempt to understand everything else.
This week, I emailed Amanda, who lives in Berlin now, to ask her why she decided to get the tattoo; she’d told me it was meaningful for her the day she got it, but I couldn’t remember the specifics. “I wanted to have a permanent reminder of how small my daily problems and heartbreaks were in the scheme of the universe,” she said. “I wanted to be able to look down and think, Oh yeah, none of this matters, so just try to be kind and grateful and enjoy yourself.”
It is a lovely perspective, this view of outer space as salve, and it could be quite effective; after all, there’s no bigger picture than the entire universe. But more often, especially these days, I’ve heard a darker interpretation of our smallness in the face of celestial forces. A small corner of the internet invokes the workings of the cosmos as a way of dismissing depressing headlines here on Earth. Yes, everything is awful, such people half-joke, but who cares? We’re all going to perish during the heat death of the universe, anyway. Didn’t you hear our sun will collapse in on itself in less than 5 billion years? Or that the Milky Way is expected to collide with another galaxy even sooner?
At the risk of sounding too earnest—but what else are anniversaries for?—I hope “Pale Blue Dot” inspires the opposite. Believing that one-10th of a pixel on a screen is going to bring people comfort is foolish, of course. But it’s something.
And where is Voyager 1, the machine that provided this modicum of peace? Even farther from us, in the space between stars, growing weaker each year. Some of its scientific instruments are still functioning, collecting data on the few phenomena of interstellar space that can actually be detected that far out, such as cosmic rays and magnetic fields. The cameras have been off since 1990; they use up a lot of energy. Candy Hansen, the NASA scientist who helped set up the shot for “Pale Blue Dot,” once told me that turning them back on again “would literally kill every other instrument on the spacecraft.”
Space agencies have far more advanced spacecraft now, capable of capturing worlds in high resolution. Hollywood spoils us with vivid special effects in big-budget space movies. By comparison, the Voyager photo doesn’t dazzle the eye. But it can, in some circumstances, soothe the rest of us.
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