Saturday, October 2, 2021

Pale Blue Point: photo of the Earth at 6 billion kilometers turns 30 years old

 Understand the story and message behind the distant portrait of the planet, commissioned by Carl Sagan before the Voyager 1 spacecraft exited the Solar System

 Zero point twelve pixels.  This is the size of the Earth seen from a distance of six billion kilometers, at the final frontier of the Solar System.  It was taken by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990, at the request of scientist Carl Sagan.  A member of the mission's imaging team, he convinced the controllers to turn the camera to take a peek at Earth before the probe left the Solar System.

 It was not a simple request: the photograph would have no scientific value, as the planet would appear too small and details could not be captured, and there was a risk that taking a photo so close to the Sun would damage the imaging system.  But Sagan believed in the importance of having a perspective on our location in the universe.

 Launched in 1977, Voyager is a 722-kilogram probe with a mission to study space.  Traveling at 64,000 kilometers an hour, it was the first man-made object to leave the Solar System, and to date it has investigated points such as the Kuiper belt and the heliosphere.  Its imaging system, currently deactivated, had two cameras: one with a low-resolution 200mm focal lens used for panoramic images, and a high-resolution 1500mm lens for smaller angles, used for spot-on shots.

 This last camera was the one used to take the picture of Pale Blue Dot, and in the end, “science's most effective salesman,” as Sagan was called by Time magazine, was right.  The image is not only known to this day, as it inspired the book Pale Blue Point, published by the astronomer in 1994 and considered to be the sequel to Cosmos.  In it, Sagan philosophizes about our space in the universe and provides descriptions of what was known at the time about the Solar System.

 Look at the point again.  It's there.  It's our home.  It's us.  At that point, everyone we love, everyone we know, everyone we've heard of, everyone who has ever existed, lives or lives their lives,” wrote Sagan.  “In our obscurity, amidst all this immensity, there is no hint that help will come from some other world to save us from ourselves.  […] For me, it underscores the responsibility to relate more kindly to one another and to preserve and love the pale blue dot, the only home we know.”

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 PALE BLUE DOT: PHOTO OF THE EARTH 6 BILLION KILOMETERS COMPLETE 30 YEARS.  OUR PLANET IS THE SMALL WHICH-BLUE DOT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BROWN STRIP, IN THE IMMENSION OF SPACE.  (PHOTO: VOYAGER 1)

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