- Friday marks the 30th anniversary of the iconic "Pale Blue Dot" photograph, which shows Earth as a speck from a vantage point 3.7 billion miles away from our sun.
- The image was taken by NASA's Voyager 1 probe, which launched in 1977 and entered interstellar space in 2012.
- NASA has released an updated version of the image that shows Earth as a bluer, clearer dot.
- The original image was part of a 1990 series that captured "family portraits" of planets in our solar system.
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On February 14, 1990, a distant spacecraft nearly 4 billion miles from Earth snapped a now iconic portrait known as the "Pale Blue Dot."
In the image, Earth is smaller than a pixel, almost hidden amid a wide swath of hazy sunlight. The photo came from the Voyager 1 probe, which launched in 1977 along with its twin, Voyager 2. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn, while Voyager 2 visited all four of the solar system's gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
The "Pale Blue Dot" picture showed everyone on Earth just how small and fragile our world is from a perspective never seen before. The image and its title were the brainchildren of the planetary scientist Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager Imaging team.
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," Sagan wrote in his book, appropriately titled "The Pale Blue Dot." "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."
On the 30th anniversary of the image, NASA has given it a makeover with modern technology "while respecting the intent of those who planned the image," the space agency said in a statement. The new image can be seen above.
The original image (below), while awe-inspiring and unprecedented, was also blurry and interrupted by light streaks. To take the photo, Voyager 1 had to be pointed toward the sun, so the grainy wave over the speck that is Earth is a scattered beam of light.
The original photo is a compilation of images and used three color filters to balance the chromatic milieu. The updated image also uses color filters but balances them in regard to each other to make the composite less hazy. In addition, the color of the sunray is adjusted to look white, similar to how our eyes perceive sunlight.
Exploring the giant planets of our solar system
The Voyager mission took advantage of a rare alignment of the solar system's planets in the 1970s and '80s, which occurs only every 175 years. The planets' locations in their respective orbits allowed the twin spacecraft to use each planet's gravity to increase their speeds so that they didn't need as much built-in propulsion.
Taking a photograph of our home planet and solar system from beyond Neptune wasn't in the original mission plan. But right before mission commanders powered off Voyager 1's camera, they had the probe turn around to face Earth one final time and snap some pictures.
Because the probe was pointed back toward the sun, it saw a scattering of light rays, which is responsible for the spectrum of haze around Earth. In the resulting image, our home planet is just 0.12 pixels in size.
Just 34 minutes after the photo was taken, Voyager 1 turned off its cameras forever.
Sagan persuaded the Voyager team to use the spacecraft to take images of Earth, even though he knew the distance meant there was a possibility nothing would show up. That's why he wanted the photos — to capture the Earth's smallness and vulnerability in the cosmos.
'A family portrait' of our solar system
Voyager 1 also took 59 other photographs of the planets in the solar system, a series that was used to create a distant "family portrait."
Like Earth, the other planets photographed appear as specks as well.
Voyager 1 photographed Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. But Mars was hidden by sunlight, Mercury was too close to the sun to appear, and the dwarf planet Pluto was too small, distant, and dark.
The Voyager's family-portrait series was the first and only time a single spacecraft has attempted to photograph our entire solar system.
In August 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space. It's now the most distant human-made object in the universe.
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