0.12 pixels

On Valentine’s Day, 1990, the farthest human-made object, Voyager 1, turned its cameras around to take a photograph of the Solar System. It was the last image the cameras ever took.

The Solar System Family Portrait is a stitch of 60 frames, put together by NASA from images sent back to Earth by the interstellar probe. The series was produced at the request of Carl Sagan, the astronomer and writer.

Together, the photographs form the Solar System’s only known selfie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PN5JJDh78IThe famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph, presented by Sagan during his 1994 lecture at Cornell University, is part of this Family Portrait. From a record distance of over 6 billion kilometres away, the Earth itself only spans 0.12 pixels.

As Sagan said in his lecture, “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.”

0.12 pixels.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

We may look at the world around us and see it for all its complexity, its activity, its life. After all, there are 7 billion people living on this little rock floating through the fabric of the university. This planet contains all the air, the water, the soil; the cities, the forests; the oceans, the rivers, and the lakes; the mountains, the deserts, the beaches, the cliffs, the rolling hills and the gentle grasslands, the deepest canyons and the shallowest puddles, the towering glass-and-steel skyscrapers and the meekest barns. On Earth is all of the evidence of a civilisation with the collective intelligence and skill to completely take supremacy over the ecosystem in which it inhabits.

This has been the stage for our deadliest wars and our greatest achievements. Atop this sphere of silicon and iron, we fought two world wars, developed deadlier and deadlier weapons of destruction to kill ourselves, and published the greatest pieces of art, of music, of writing, and of science. From this pale blue dot, we sent out the first objects with clear signs of intelligent life into the deep cosmos: hoping, believing, perhaps praying, that there’s someone else out there.

That we’re not alone.

Because from 6,000,000,000 km away, all of us are just 0.12 pixels.

Small enough that Photoshop might just smudge it away as background noise.

Soon after the images were taken, NASA mission controllers deactivated the Voyager cameras so power could be conserved for the probe’s other instruments. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 continue to transmit data to Earth on their extended missions from beyond the Solar System.

The radioisotope thermoelectric generators on board both Voyager probes are expected to stop supplying sufficient power for onboard instruments by 2025. When that happens, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will be cut off from all communication with Earth, and the Voyager Interstellar Mission will end.

But the probes will continue doing one more thing for Earth, planned all the way back in 1977 when the probes were launched: carrying the Voyager Golden Records, humanity’s message in a bottle tossed into the deep oceans of the cosmos.