Image of the Earth and Moon taken from Saturn
The Earth and Moon photographed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, July 19, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Here's the photo that should be on the front of all newspapers today – 23 years after it produced the legendary Pale Blue Dot image, taken by the Voyager 1 probe from the outer reaches of the Solar System, NASA has captured a new distant view of Earth by turning the cameras of its Cassini probe back on the region of space we call home.

Taken from Cassini's vantage point in orbit around Saturn, approximately 1.4 billion kilometres from Earth, this image doesn't provide a view as distant as the Pale Blue Dot, which was taken from approximately 6 billion kilometres away as Voyager 1 reached the edge of the Solar System. However, what distinguishes the Cassini image is its stunning clarity, with the Earth and Moon shining brightly against the dimmer backdrop of distant stars. (I've illustrated this post with the "raw" image, but if you visit the NASA site you can see other versions, including one showing Saturn in the foreground.)

Observing the Earth from this distance, it's possible to feel both humble and proud. On the one hand, depictions of the Earth as a tiny dot of light could be seen as underlining our cosmic insignificance. Yet, just as images such as "Earthrise" alerted people to the fragility of "Spaceship Earth" when they first appeared in the 1960s, this distant view reminds us that, to our knowledge, that tiny dot is unique in supporting life and civilisation.

Of course, I'm very far from being the first person to make that observation. Any attempt to do so can only ever be a lesser imitation of the original, so the best way to end this post is with the words of Carl Sagan himself, written to accompany the original 1990 image of the Pale Blue Dot:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again 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. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. 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. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, pp. xv–xvi)