Valentine's Day also anniversary of Voyager's famous 'Pale Blue Dot' photo
On Valentine's Day nearly 30 years ago, a photograph inspired a different sort of poetry.
It was Feb. 14, 1990, that the Voyager 1 space probe — having finished its tour of the planets in the outer solar system — turned its cameras back toward the Earth and captured the picture that scientist and TV host Carl Sagan dubbed the Pale Blue Dot: our planet seen as less than a pixel, caught in a beam of light reflected off the camera's optics.
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us," Sagan wrote in his 1994 book of the same title. "On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives."
NASA noted that the image, along with pictures of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus, were not part of Voyager's intended mission, but Sagan had the idea for a "family portrait" from Voyager 1's unique position 3.7 billion miles from home.
Sagan's thoughts continued to a darker place, musing on how insignificant all the violence and struggle of humanity seemed when seen from so far away that it took light more than five hours to traverse, and how, until we could colonize other planets, that tiny speck in space was where we would "make our stand." But in the end, he came back to how our loneliness on the cosmic scale meant it was even more important to love one another — perhaps a more fitting sentiment for the holiday when the picture was taken.
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," he wrote. "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."
Arthur Kosowski, chair of the physics and astronomy department at the University of Pittsburgh, noted the incredible contrast between all the amazing and beautiful images captured by outward-looking space probes and telescopes, and the image of the humble dot.
"Astronomers are used to looking out into space; we have so many spectacular images of things out in the cosmos," Kosowski said. "We can look out and see millions of galaxies, but we have seen exactly one place where we know that life exists."
In addition to Sagan, his "Cosmos" TV series and the iconic photo inspiring many like him to pursue astronomy, Kosowski noted how the photo was also an inspiration to the environmental movement.
"From such a distance, Earth is quite a fragile and tiny place in a sea of all that black," he said.
After the family portraits and the Pale Blue Dot photo were taken, Voyager's cameras were shut down to devote the probe's computing power to other instruments, and the probe continued to zoom out of the Solar System.
In 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft, which had taken stunning images of Pluto, will try to take a new version of the Pale Blue Dot from even further away, according to The Atlantic .
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, email@example.com or on Twitter @msantoni.