STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — On Valentine’s Day in 1990, a NASA spacecraft nearly 4 billion miles away snapped an iconic photo of the Earth.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the famous portrait taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., published a new version of the image known as the “Pale Blue Dot.”
Voyager 1 was speeding out of the solar system when mission managers commanded it to look back toward home for a final time. On Feb. 14, 1990, it snapped a series of 60 images that were used to create the first “family portrait” of our solar system.
The picture would become known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” which shows Earth within a scattered ray of sunlight. Voyage 1 was so far away that from its vantage point, Earth was just a point of light about a pixel in size.
The updated image — shown above — uses modern image-processing software and techniques “while respecting the intent of those who planned the image.”
“Like the original, the new color view shows Planet Earth as a single, bright blue pixel in the vastness of space,” said NASA. “Rays of sunlight scattered within the camera optics stretch across the scene, one of which happens to have intersected dramatically with Earth.
In addition to Earth, Voyager 1 captured images of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. Mars was obscured by scattered sunlight bouncing around the camera, Mercury was too close to the sun, and dwarf planet Pluto was too small, too far away and too dark to be detected.
“The images gave humans an awe-inspiring and unprecedented view of their home world and its neighbors,” said NASA. “Like Earth, each planet appears as just a speck of light (Uranus and Neptune appear elongated due to spacecraft motion during their 15-second camera exposures).”
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — which built and manages the Voyager probes — mounted the entire mosaic of the “Pale Blue Dot” and other planets on a wall in its Theodore von Kármán Auditorium — covering over 20 feet. Members of the Voyager imaging team said in a 2019 research paper that the image of Earth had to be replaced very often because so many people would touch it.
Below is the original photo taken in 1990.
The popular name of this view is traced to the title of the 1994 book by Voyager imaging scientist Carl Sagan, who originated the idea of using Voyager’s cameras to image the distant Earth. Sagan played a critical role in enabling the family portraits to be taken, according to NASA.
The family portrait is still the first and only time a spacecraft has attempted to photograph our home solar system. Only three spacecraft have been capable of making the observation from such a distance, including Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and New Horizons.
In August 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, making it the most distant human-made object ever.