Voyager 1’s famous look back at Earth – a ‘pale blue dot’ – 30 years later

Earth – a pale blue dot “suspended in a sunbeam” – as imaged by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The iconic image was reprocessed to mark its 30th anniversary. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On 14 February 1990, just 34 minutes before Voyager 1’s cameras were powered down forever in an effort to conserve power, the spacecraft captured an image of Earth some 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) away. The snapshot was part of a “family portrait” of the solar system, a farewell set of 60 images showing Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth, Venus and the Sun, a whimsical project inspired by the late planetary scientist Carl Sagan, a member of the Voyager imaging team.

The image of Earth, unresolved and less than a single pixel across, became known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” the title of a book by Sagan and a phrase he used to describe humanity’s home in the vastness of space. The tiny dot of light is seen “suspended in a sunbeam,” Sagan wrote, referring to an internal reflection in Voyager 1’s camera system.

For the 30th anniversary of the iconic image, modern photo-processing techniques were employed “while respecting the intent of those who planned the image,” according to a Jet Propulsion Laboratory statement. Sagan’s description of the scene remains an equally iconic homage to humanity’s home.

“Look again at that dot,” he wrote. “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 civilisation, 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.”

Voyager 1’s perspective is shown here, along with the series of snapshots required to capture six of the solar system’s planets in a one-of-a-kind family portrait. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sagan noted that “Earth is the only world known so far to harbour 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,” he concluded. “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.”

The full text of the passage is available from the Planetary Society.