Do you have romantic feelings about space? Does the thought of the cosmos send your heart fluttering and set your palms sweating? Good. You’re in the right place.
Valentine’s Day is the anniversary of the so-called Pale Blue Dot photo made famous by Carl Sagan. The image was snapped on February 14, 1990 by the Voyager I space probe at the request of the famed astronomer, and captured a vision of Earth from about 4 billion miles away. At the time, Voyager I was exiting the solar system, and NASA turned the camera around to take one last look at us from a vantage point beyond Neptune.
The suggestion wasn’t exactly a casual one. Some on the imaging team worried that pointing the camera back toward the sun would damage it and prevent future photographs from being taken. The risk ended up being worth it. Just four years later, Sagan released his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which gave the world one of the best known meditations on why space is so endlessly captivating, and why we must treasure our piece of it:
"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. … It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. 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 with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
(If you have time, treat yourself to the entire passage as read by Sagan.)
While the image didn’t carry much in the way of scientific value, the view of our planet as a tiny spec in the vast backdrop of space continues to inspire 26 years later. Voyager I is still out there, now in interstellar space, and still collecting data. As Earth’s farthest traveling man-made object, it’s exploring uncharted territory—places the human race will likely never experience firsthand.
"After taking these images in 1990, we began our interstellar mission. We had no idea how long the spacecraft would last," Ed Stone, a project scientist for the Voyager mission, said in a NASA release. It’s now 38 years and counting.
While the image was initially snapped on February 14, the data was stored in an on-board tape recorder and its transmission to Earth was delayed. NASA didn’t get the collection of 60 photos until a month or more later, when they were sent back at the speed of light. Three of those frames, each taken through a different color filter, showed Earth. They were recombined to create the Pale Blue Dot image. The bands are scattered light rays from the Sun; of the 640,000 pixels in the frame, Earth comprises less than one.
We might not be able to send Voyager 1 a Valentine on the anniversary of one of its most treasured accomplishments, but it’s nice to know that on this day 26 years ago, it made a Valentine for us, and kept it for itself, just for a little while.