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Pale Blue Dot

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Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rays of sunlight over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.
Seen from about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), Earth appears as a tiny dot (the blueish-white speck approximately halfway down the brown band to the right) within the darkness of deep space.

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of that day's Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.

In the photograph, Earth's apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera.[1]

Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.[2]


In September 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1, a 722-kilogram (1,592 lb) robotic spacecraft on a mission to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space.[3][4] After the encounter with the Jovian system in 1979 and the Saturnian system in 1980, the primary mission was declared complete in November of the same year. Voyager 1 was the first space probe to provide detailed images of the two largest planets and their major moons.

A space probe resting on a stand, with a parabolic antenna pointing upwards and two arms extending from the sides, bearing cameras and other devices, against a black background curtain
The Voyager 1 spacecraft

The spacecraft, still travelling at 64,000 km/h (40,000 mph), is the most distant man-made object from Earth and the first one to leave the Solar System.[5] Its mission has been extended and continues to this day, with the aim of investigating the boundaries of the Solar system, including the Kuiper belt, the heliosphere and interstellar space. Operating for 41 years, 2 months and 13 days as of today (18 November 2018), it receives routine commands and transmits data back to the Deep Space Network.[3][6][7]

Voyager 1 was expected to work only through the Saturn encounter. When the spacecraft passed the planet in 1980, Sagan proposed the idea of the space probe taking one last picture of Earth.[8] He acknowledged that such a picture would not have had much scientific value, as the Earth would appear too small for Voyager's cameras to make out any detail, but it would be meaningful as a perspective on our place in the universe.

Although many in NASA's Voyager program were supportive of the idea, there were concerns that taking a picture of Earth so close to the Sun risked damaging the spacecraft's imaging system irreparably. It was not until 1989 that Sagan's idea was put into practice, but then instrument calibrations delayed the operation further, and the personnel who devised and transmitted the radio commands to Voyager 1 were also being laid off or transferred to other projects. Finally, NASA Administrator Richard Truly interceded to ensure that the photograph was taken.[5][9][10]


Voyager 1's Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) consisted of two cameras: a 200 mm focal length, low-resolution wide-angle camera (WA), used for spatially extended imaging, and a 1500 mm high-resolution narrow-angle camera (NA) – the one that took Pale Blue Dot – intended for detailed imaging of specific targets. Both cameras were of the slow-scan vidicon tube type and were fitted with eight colored filters, mounted on a filter wheel placed in front of the tube.[11][12]

The challenge was that, as the mission progressed, the objects to be photographed would increasingly be farther away and would appear fainter, requiring longer exposures and slewing (panning) of the cameras to achieve acceptable quality. The telecommunication capability also diminished with distance, limiting the number of data modes that could be used by the imaging system.[13] The series of commands were compiled and sent to Voyager, with the images executed on February 14, 1990.

After taking the Family Portrait series of images, which included Pale Blue Dot, NASA mission managers commanded Voyager 1 to power its cameras down, as the spacecraft was not going to fly near anything else of significance for the rest of its mission, while other instruments that were still collecting data needed power for the long journey to interstellar space.[14]


The design of the command sequence to be relayed to the spacecraft and the calculations for each photograph's exposure time were developed by space scientists Candy Hansen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Carolyn Porco of the University of Arizona.[9] After the planned imaging sequence was taken on February 14, 1990, the data from the camera were stored initially in an on-board tape recorder. Transmission to Earth was also delayed by the Magellan and Galileo missions being given priority over the use of the Deep Space Network. Then, between March and May 1990, Voyager 1 returned 60 frames back to Earth, with the radio signal travelling at the speed of light for nearly five and a half hours to cover the distance.[5]

Three of the frames received showed the Earth as a tiny point of light in empty space. Each frame had been taken using a different color filter: blue, green and violet, with exposure times of 0.72, 0.48 and 0.72 seconds respectively. The three frames were then recombined to produce the image that became Pale Blue Dot.[15][16]

The wide-angle photograph of the sun and inner planets (not visible), with Pale Blue Dot superimposed on the left, Venus to its right

Of the 640,000 individual pixels that compose each frame, Earth takes up less than one (0.12 of a pixel, according to NASA). The light bands across the photograph are an artifact, the result of sunlight reflecting off parts of the camera and its sunshade, due to the relative proximity between the Sun and the Earth.[5][17] Voyager's point of view was approximately 32° above the ecliptic. Detailed analysis suggested that the camera also detected the Moon, although it is too faint to be visible without special processing.[16]

The pale blue color of the dot is the result of polarization and scattering of the light reflected from Earth. The polarization in turn depends on various factors such as cloud cover, exposed areas of oceans, forests, deserts, snow fields etc.[18][19]

Pale Blue Dot, which was taken with the narrow-angle camera, was also published as part of a composite picture created from a wide-angle camera photograph showing the Sun and the region of space containing the Earth and Venus. The wide-angle image was inset with two narrow-angle pictures: Pale Blue Dot and a similar photograph of Venus. The wide-angle photograph was taken with the darkest filter (a methane absorption band) and the shortest possible exposure (5 milliseconds), to avoid saturating the camera's vidicon tube with scattered sunlight. Even so, the result was a bright burned-out image with multiple reflections from the optics in the camera and the Sun that appears far larger than the actual dimension of the solar disk. The rays around the Sun are a diffraction pattern of the calibration lamp which is mounted in front of the wide-angle lens.[16]


Position of Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. The vertical bars are spaced one year apart and indicate the probe's distance above the ecliptic.

According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's HORIZONS tool, the distances between Voyager 1 and the Earth on February 14 and May 15, 1990, were as follows:[20]

Distance of Voyager 1 from Earth
Unit of measurement February 14, 1990 May 15, 1990
Astronomical units 40.472229 40.417506
Kilometers 6,054,587,000 6,046,400,000
Miles 3,762,146,000 3,757,059,000


Pale blue dot image with a wider field of view to show more background
Sagan pointed out that on that dot, "every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives".

During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan presented the image to the audience and shared his reflections on the deeper meaning behind the idea of the Pale Blue Dot:[21]

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

Sagan also titled his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space after the photograph.[22][23]

In 2015, NASA acknowledged the 25th anniversary of Pale Blue Dot.[24]

Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward Earth and saw a 'pale blue dot,' " an image that continues to inspire wonderment about the spot we call home.

— Voyager project scientist[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A Pale Blue Dot". The Planetary Society. Archived from the original on December 19, 2014. Retrieved December 21, 2014.
  2. ^ "From Earth to the Solar System, The Pale Blue Dot". NASA. Archived from the original on December 18, 2014. Retrieved December 24, 2014.
  3. ^ a b "Mission Overview". Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
  4. ^ "Voyager 1". Archived from the original on October 17, 2011. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d Sagan, Carl (September 9, 1990). "The Earth from the frontiers of the Solar system – The Pale, Blue Dot". PARADE Magazine. Retrieved July 28, 2011.
  6. ^ Butrica, Andrew.J (1994). "Chapter 11". From Engineering Science To Big Science (1st ed.). New York: Random House. p. 251. ISBN 0-679-43841-6.
  7. ^ "An Earthly View of Mars". Archived from the original on August 14, 2012. Retrieved July 28, 2011.
  8. ^ "It's our dot: For Carl Sagan, planet Earth is just a launch pad for human explorations of the outer universe". Retrieved July 28, 2011.
  9. ^ a b Sagan, 1994, pp. 4–5
  10. ^ "An Alien View Of Earth". Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  11. ^ "Voyager – Imaging Science Subsystem". Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA. Archived from the original on February 13, 2018. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  12. ^ "Cassini Solstice Mission – ISS". NASA. Archived from the original on January 14, 2015. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  13. ^ "Voyager 1 Narrow Angle Camera Description". Planetary Rings Node. SETI Institute. Archived from the original on January 1, 2016. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  14. ^ "Voyager Celebrates 20-Year-Old Valentine to Solar System". NASA. Archived from the original on April 19, 2016. Retrieved June 23, 2016.
  15. ^ "PIA00452: Solar System Portrait – Earth as 'Pale Blue Dot'". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
  16. ^ a b c "PIA00450: Solar System Portrait – View of the Sun, Earth and Venus". Archived from the original on July 5, 2011. Retrieved July 28, 2011.
  17. ^ "Solar System Exploration-Pale Blue Dot". Archived from the original on November 13, 2011. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
  18. ^ "Polarization of terrestrial planets and the ZIMPOL technique". Archived from the original on December 8, 2014. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
  19. ^ Woolf, N.J.; Smith, P.S.; Traub, W.A.; Jucks, K.W. (March 28, 2002). "The Spectrum of Earthshine: A Pale Blue Dot Observed from the Ground" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal. The American Astronomical Society. 574 (1): 430. arXiv:astro-ph/0203465. Bibcode:2002ApJ...574..430W. doi:10.1086/340929. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
  20. ^ "NASA's JPL Horizon System for calculating ephemerides for solar system bodies". Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. Retrieved July 13, 2011.
  21. ^ "A Pale Blue Dot". The Big Sky Astronomy Club. Archived from the original on June 18, 2017. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
  22. ^ Sagan, Carl (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-43841-6.
  23. ^ Garfinkel, Simson.L (February 5, 1995). "Sagan looks to space for future salvation". The Daily Gazette. Retrieved July 28, 2011.
  24. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on April 2, 2017. Retrieved February 15, 2017.

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