Pale Blue Dot Revisited

During the Voyager 1 missions Dr. Carl Sagan, one of the people working with NASA on the project, made the suggestion that the Voyager 1 probe point its cameras back at Earth and take a picture of the planet from beyond the orbit of Neptune and on February 14th 1990 We received the most distant image of our world ever.

Earth as seen by Voyager 1 February 14, 1990 Earth is the blue dot in the sunbeam approximately midway down on the right

Dr. Sagan called this the “Pale Blue Dot” and even penned a book with the same title. If you ever get the chance I highly suggest you read the whole book because it is wonderful but there is a passage of particular importance to me at the end of the first chapter. It has gone on to become Dr. Sagan’s most famous quote.

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. 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

This is a powerful statement by one of the leading astronomers and science educators of the 70s 80s and 90s. I think he was both critical of us as humans and optimistic as well because we have done such horrible things but at the same time we have such amazing potential. That however is a discussion for a later time, Dr. Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot isn’t the topic of this post, Cassini is.

Cassini, for those that don’t know was a probe that was sent to Saturn to gather information about the ringed planet and several of its moons. The probe was sent hurdling into Saturn on September 15th 2017 but before its fateful plunge the controllers of Cassini decided to recreate the famous picture from Voyager 1.

Earth from behind Saturn with the Sun eclipsed by the ringed planet taken by the probe Cassini

I know that image looks computer generated but I promise you it is not. I though it was at first and had to go to NASA’s site directly to get the image just to be sure it was real. From out there all our issues and problems seem miniscule, and they are on a galactic and universe scale. All our problems and successes at the scale of the universe are meaningless and really pointless. But think of what this image and the one from Voyager 1 represents. We, intelligent primates, have manages to cultivate minerals on our planet and advance out technology to the point that we can send cameras and scientific equipment to a distant planet and see our home in a way that it has never been viewed before and likely won’t be viewed again for hundreds of our years. No human eye has actually looked back home and seen this image and yet we have. We may not have been there physically but our technology was and all our hopes and dreams and aspirations are carried with it. We are still only now setting foot into a planetary stage where we can begin to seriously discuss moving our species to other planetary bodies. There are currently plans in the works to build a permanent moon base to aide in ferrying explorers and supplies to Mars in an effort to establish a permanent Human presence there. That is mind bending and has not existed in serious scientific discussion ever. Sure they have discussed the how we would do it but now we are doing it, we are talking about it seriously and making plans to do it. Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin, Blue Origin, and others are actively working to make what was once science fiction into science fact. We are starting our assent, but we will not and cannot stop our growth as a civilization. We may pause for a while but one day we will reach the stars, not just our planets. Our survival depends on it.

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