Iconic Space Images #3

The Pale Blue Dot

One of the most popular — in fact, over used — phrases to describe our planet is pale blue dot. It is a pale blue dot indeed when spotted from 6.4 billion kilometers away. This image was taken by the Voyager 1 probe as it was leaving the solar system.

The Earth as a pale blue dot (the tiny speck as seen on the right most band). Image: NASA/Voyager 1

This tiny fleck of light was described as a “pale blue dot” first by astronomer Carl Sagan. Indeed, it was his request to NASA that resulted in Voyager I turning towards the Earth to snap this picture. The bands of light in the image are scattered sun rays. It was taken on February 14, 1990.

Carl Sagan popularized the phrase, mainly through the television series Cosmos, but also through his regular usage of it. He first used the phrase at a lecture in Cornell University in 1994. Never before and never since has anyone penned more humbling and awe inspiring ode to life as we know it.

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. 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. To my mind, 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, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
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