I would imagine that, for most people, February the 14th is a significant date, only because it is Valentine’s Day. And while I am all in favour of celebrations of love, it would be remiss of us to forget that the day holds an additional significance for humanity, as the anniversary of the Pale Blue Dot photo.
To properly understand the true wonder of the story, we ought to start from the beginning. In September 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Its primary mission was to help us to understand Jupiter’s magnetic field, moons and rings, and then to go on to photograph Saturn. By November 1980, it had accomplished both objectives, and therefore reached the end of its planned life. But Carl Sagan and Carolyn Porco, two imaging scientists on the mission, suggested that the probe ought to be used to create a “family portrait of the solar system” before it was commanded to power down. While this idea had widespread support within the Voyager program, technical and administrative delays meant that it was only in 1990, after the personal intervention of the NASA administrator, Richard Truly, that Voyager turned its camera towards the Earth.
And so, on the 14th of February, the celebrated Pale Blue Dot photo was taken. For those of you who are not familiar with the image, I seriously recommend checking it out, especially now that NASA have released a re-mastered version for its 30th anniversary. Earth appears a mere mote of dust (smaller than a single pixel in the image), suspended in a sunbeam, and surrounded by the vast expanse of space. It is, perhaps, the most humbling image in existence, a testament to the fragility of human existence and a reminder of our insignificance in an indifferent universe. The phrase “Pale Blue Dot” was coined by Carl Sagan in a 1994 book of the same name, a must-read for anybody contemplating our place in the universe.
There is one final awe-inspiring element to this story. Voyager 1 still lives. Almost 40 years beyond its planned lifetime, and 14 billion miles beyond the Earth, Voyager 1 continues to receive commands and transmit data back to Earth. It is hoped that it might live for another 5 years before the thermoelectric generators finally fail, and it continues its passage through the stars without human contact. It is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the farthest human-made object from Earth. It is a machine, and therefore, in assigning Voyager adjectives like “determined” or “brave” I would be guilty of gross anthropomorphism (which I believe, in certain circles, still merits the death penalty). But when a machine represents human curiosity and ingenuity to the extent that Voyager does, the personification feels somehow appropriate. Regardless, the story of Voyager can serve as an apocryphal tale-reminding us that even as we step out into the universe, we are well served by looking back, and examining our place within it.