Voyager I's famous Pale Blue Dot photo turns 25 today, reminding us to be excellent to one another.
On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe took the first ever images of our solar system's planets from beyond the orbit of Neptune. The 60-picture sequence—known as the "Family Portrait" series—was successfully transmitted back to Earth months later, with one particular image standing out from the rest. It showed Earth, 3.7 billion miles distant, taking up less than a pixel against a vast cosmic backdrop. A pale, blue dot.
Since that day, the Pale Blue Dot photo captured the imagination of the space community and the public, inspiring one of Carl Sagan's most memorable and beloved riffs. "From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest," Sagan wrote in his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
"But for us, it's different," he continued. "Consider again 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 Pale Blue Dot segment of the Cosmos reboot. Credit: YouTube/Ken Takahashi.
The entire passage is worth a reread, what with it being among Sagan's greatest hits, eloquence-wise (and that's a competitive category). He emphasizes not only the collective humility that the photo inspires, but also the imperative for humans to learn how to extend love to each other on a global level.
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," Sagan wrote in the book. "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."
Sagan's tribute to it remains an evocative cultural touchstone even today, on the 25th anniversary of the Pale Blue Dot image's conception. His sentiment is even more heartwarming in light of the fact that Voyager 1 is also carrying another memento of human love: EEG brain waves of Sagan's wife and frequent collaborator Ann Druyan, recorded when she was first falling for the famed scientist.
"My feelings as a 27 year old woman, madly fallen in love, they're on that record," Druyan said in a NASA article about Voyager. "It's forever. It'll be true 100 million years from now. For me Voyager is a kind of joy so powerful, it robs you of your fear of death."
Ann Druyan reflecting on Pale Blue Dot in a video posted yesterday. Credit: YouTube/NASA-JPL.
Valentine's Day is alternatively seen as an excuse to celebrate love in all forms, or as crock of crap with dubious historical origins. Both are valid assessments. But Voyager's contribution to the day is much more all-encompassing and inspiring than either extreme.
In his speech, Sagan advocates for fostering communal, species-wide love, paired with respect for the tiny planet that sustains us all. Regardless of your relationship status or your feelings about hamfisted Hallmark holidays, that's a message we can all take to heart.