Three days into Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Nasa tweeted a portrait of the Earth from afar — in which our planet can be seen as a pale blue dot just below the stunning gold of Saturn’s rings backlit by the Sun, next to the immense black semicircle of Saturn itself in silhouette.
“You are here,” the US space agency wrote in the tweet, before noting the image was taken nine years ago in 2013 by Nasa’s Cassini mission to the ringed gas giant.
But the significance of tweeting that image, at that time, runs deeper than a mere anniversary, whether Nasa intended it to or not.
The Cassini image is not the first “pale blue dot” portrait of Earth taken by a spacecraft. That honor belongs to Voyager 1, which on 14 February 1990, turned its cameras toward Earth as the Nasa probe was leaving the Solar System.
The Earth looks even paler, even smaller, a true dot in the vastness of space in the Voyager 1 image, and it was the famous planetary scientist and science communicator Carl Sagan who popularised the term “pale blue dot” in his 1994 book of the same name.
“Look again at that dot. 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, he wrote.
“Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
Sagan was an active proponent of nuclear disarmament and wrote about the horrors a nuclear war between the United States and the then Soviet Union could unleash upon the world, as well the horror of war more generally.
Nasa’s tweet over the weekend came as the Soviet Union’s successor state, the Russian Federation, was three days into an invasion of Ukraine that has once again raised the specter of global nuclear war, a ghost many had hoped was buried in the rubble of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin wall.
It also came as Nasa and the European Space Agency try to navigate a political minefield, trying to cooperate with international sanctions with Russia as they can, while also maintaining crucial cooperation with their Russian space agency counterparts to maintain joint operations on the International Space station, which currently hosts a crew of four US and one ESA astronaut, as well as two Russian cosmonauts.
Russia has been a partner in the space station since 1993 and contributed to the building of the ISS and its being continually crewed for the past 21 years, an outpost of peaceful international cooperation above what, with some perspective, is a relatively small, pale blue dot.