On this day in 1990, the Voyager I space probe, the only man-made object to so far to leave our solar system and travel into interstellar space, took a series of photographs commonly referred to as “The Family Portrait.” On the suggestion of astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA turned the cameras on Voyager around as it flew past Pluto to look at our solar system from its outer end. At a distance of about 6 billion kilometers from Earth, on February 14, 1990, Voyager I made history again.
Although the picture, and Sagan admitted this at the time, has no specific scientific value, it did, however, have great philosophical implications. Sagan reflected on them in his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again 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 tiny blue pixel above represented the Earth in the Family Portrait, but all the planets of the solar system can be seen with the exception of Mercury, which was too close to the Sun; Mars, which was to dark; and Pluto, which was too far out to be illuminated were pictured in the complete portrait.
The philosophical implications of the photo are as potent today, if not more so, as they were in 1990, as concerns about global climate change continue to increase and the world gets bogged down over more of those “thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines” that Sagan mentioned. Perhaps 25 years is a good time to stop, and reflect, and remember exactly what we are, and where we are in the universe – “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”