As any photographer knows, shooting into the sun is tricky. But the spacecraft Voyager 1, zooming out of the solar system on its way to alien stars, had no choice when it snapped a historic "family portrait" of the solar system -- the first taken from outside looking in.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration released the photographs yesterday.
The lonely subjects of the portrait are spread across more than 3 billion miles. Some are washed out or impaled in the solar glare, and some are elongated by motion. The "photographer" was about 4 billion miles from the sun when it snapped the mosaic of 60 images of the whirling planets during a four-hour period beginning about 8 p.m. last Feb. 13.
The scale is such that the sun is only a dot and even the giant outer planets are infinitesimal specks. The Earth filled only a fraction of one of the 640,000 digitally-transmitted pixels, or picture elements, that comprise each frame. And even in closeup frames, it appears as a tiny, blue dot in the ocean of space.
Author-scientist Carl Sagan of Cornell University, who had pressed NASA to take the portrait, compared its impact to the stunning Apollo-era images of Earth taken from the moon, which "underlined the vulnerability and fragility of Earth."
The new portrait is even more humbling, he said. "This is where we live -- on a blue dot . . . a very small stage in a great cosmic arena."
Noting that "not a smidgen of evidence" of life has been found anywhere else, with the possible exception of organic matter on a moon of Saturn and one of Neptune, he added, "I think this perspective underscores our responsibility to preserve and cherish . . . the only home we have."
Traveling about 1 million miles a day and looking down from 32 degrees above the plane, or track, in which the planets orbit the sun, Voyager captured Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus. Mars and Mercury were not visible in the sun's glare, and Pluto was too small and distant to appear.
Voyager chief scientist Edward Stone of the California Institute of Technology called Voyager's final images another milestone on a surprise-filled 13-year exploration of the solar system that had rewritten textbooks, with such discoveries as active volcanoes on a moon of Jupiter and 1,100-mph winds on Saturn.
The two Voyager craft, launched in 1977, are headed out of the solar system on separate paths and, he said, could reach the end of the sun's electromagnetic influence and send back the first data from interstellar space by 2010.