All That We Are From 898 Million Miles Away

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft’s photo of Saturn from Dec. 18, 2012.

Folks, the universe is really quite big. Haven’t you noticed?

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes for you: Sometimes when I sit at the laptop to do a blog post, I have a few different ideas for what I want to write about, depending on what mood strikes me. And then, sometimes, as I today, when I’m scrolling Twitter, I have to course correct to that thing because I become fixated on it.

Enter a photo I’m certain I’ve seen dozens of times, but like the moon hanging on in the morning, or blossoming at night, I never tire of seeing it.

About a decade ago in 2013, the Cassini spacecraft captured a wide-angle view of Saturn and a chunk of its rings, according to WIRED magazine. Cassini is a space exploration craft launched in 1997 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in conjunction with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, and it spent 20 years in space, largely to study Saturn.

Think about this: Human beings in 1903, through Orville and Wilbur Wright, were the first to fly via an airplane (others had done gliders and hot air balloons, but an airplane was groundbreaking); only 94 years later, humans sent a spacecraft into space that was capable of flying for the seven years it would take to reach Saturn, as well as bringing with it the ESA’s Huygens probe to be the first human-made object to land on a world in the distant outer solar system, according to NASA. Overall, the spacecraft would travel 4.9 billion miles and take nearly half-a-million images for scientists.

Humans are freaking cool, and I return, as I always will, to one of my favorite points. Our absolute best, most reliable, most life-saving, most miraculously renewable resource we have is human ingenuity. Never forget that.

Some of the other cool discoveries and achievements detailed by NASA include revealing that Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, has rain, rivers, lakes, and seas! And that it’s covered in a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere similar to what Earth might have been like long ago. That’s why NASA called Cassini’s journey sort of like a time machine: A chance for scientists to gaze back into what the early universe, and particularly planet and moon formation, was like.

But one of the coolest images taken by Cassini, and the one I saw through WIRED’s Twitter feed, is this one:

Breathtaking.

That’s us, below Saturn’s rings, the pale blue dot about 898 million miles away.

Everything we are, all of our histories, genealogies, wars, genocides, scientific discoveries, hates, loves, hopes, anxieties, fears, and dreams; it’s all right there! The minds of the most brilliant, and the worst, and the most inspiring and the most infamous, humans, from the sonnets of Shakespeare to the symphonies of Beethoven, to the Bible, the Quran, and the teachings of the Buddha; it’s all right there! The dinosaurs, the sharks, the genius of the octopus, the beauty of a rose, the enormity of the giant sequoias, the sounds of birds, and the vastness of our oceans; it’s all right there! The annoyingness of stubbing your toe on on a wooden chair leg, or getting your socks wet by the dog’s overflowing water bowl (who does that?!), or the hug you receive your significant other after a long time apart, or the way a child plays chalks the cement without a concern in the world, or how yummy eggs and honey mustard is (I said it), or the way that first cup of coffee clears away the foggy brain in the morning; it’s all right there! On that pale blue dot floating around in the vastness of space in an incomprehensibly big universe. Everything we have been, everything we, and perhaps, barring being able to hop planets in the future, everything we ever will be. That’s us. That’s our home.

It’s so beautiful; it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen. It is the most jarring, humbling manifestation of our place in the cosmos. But rather than engendering a sense of hopeless nihilism — why does this all matter? We are mere dust floating in the solar winds — I find the image inspiring, and a sort of “call to our better angels,” as it were, to loosely paraphrase Lincoln.

Because the fact of that image is a freaking miracle. There is no more eloquent way to put that because it beggars belief and our language’s ability to comprehend it. The fact that we are here, at all, existent in the cosmos, that we survived long enough to advance as a species in the way we did, and that we got to such a point to not only caring about the cosmos, but being able to technologically explore them? Marvelous.

So, yeah, the universe is ginormous, but humans, for our small stature in the cosmos, we sure do pull our weight around quite a bit. We’re pretty cool.

And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t direct you to the other, perhaps more famously known Pale Blue Dot image, from NASA’s Voyager mission taken in 1990, where we were captured swimming in the sunlight.

Do you have a favorite space photo? I’d love to see it!

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