It was back in 1990 that the Voyager 1 probe took the now famous 'Pale Blue Dot' image of Earth from 6 billion kilometres away, as the spacecraft glanced backward while hurtling towards the outer edge of the solar system.
Now, two other distant spacecraft — Cassini orbiting Saturn and MESSENGER orbiting Mercury — have snapped two new photographs of Earth, and while they certainly won't replace the iconic Pale Blue Dot, they deliver the same message.
The first pictures were taken on Friday, by the Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the ringed planet, Saturn, roughly 1.5 billion kms away. The images were specifically to capture a view of Saturn's rings while they were backlit by the Sun, to catch the spectacular details that are missed from any other vantage point. By coincidence, Earth happened to be in the right position to get in the picture (not quite a photobomb, but close).
"We can't see individual continents or people in this portrait of Earth, but this pale blue dot is a succinct summary of who we were on July 19," Linda Spilker, the Cassini Project Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. "Cassini's picture reminds us how tiny our home planet is in the vastness of space, and also testifies to the ingenuity of the citizens of this tiny planet to send a robotic spacecraft so far away from home to study Saturn and take a look-back photo of Earth."
The amazing thing is, this picture doesn't just show Earth, but also the Moon. You can see it as this video zooms in on the image:
Following this amazing picture, the MESSENGER spacecraft, circling around the innermost planet in our solar system — Mercury — snapped a picture of its own, taking a long-exposure image of Earth and the Moon.
"That images of our planet have been acquired on a single day from two distant solar system outposts reminds us of this nation's stunning technical accomplishments in planetary exploration," said Sean Solomon, the MESSENGER mission principal investigator, at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "And because Mercury and Saturn are such different outcomes of planetary formation and evolution, these two images also highlight what is special about Earth. There's no place like home."
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Besides the realization of how truly tiny our world really is, one other thing to take from these images is that they show the extent of human exploration, since no human has ever traveled beyond lunar orbit. Along with that reality comes hope, though.
Given where these pictures were taken from, at two completely opposing positions in the solar system — Cassini in the frigid depths near Saturn and MESSENGER near the scorching heat of the Sun — it really shows what we're capable of, and that it's only a matter of time before we venture beyond what these images show. Personally, I just hope it happens sooner, rather than later.
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