• April 27, 2016

10 National Geographic Photos That Explain Earth to Extraterrestrials

Becky Harlan

How did this photograph of Jane Goodall end up in outer space?

Picture of Jane Goodall and another person observing chimps in the forest
Photograph by Vanne Morris-Goodall

In August and September of 1977 the twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched. Their mission was to explore our solar system “from Jupiter to Neptune” before eventually leaving it—heading into interstellar space and to the truly unexplored beyond. Fixed to each spacecraft was a gold-coated record containing information about life on Earth—like a message in a bottle for any intelligent life that might discover it.

The record contained, among other things, an audio montage titled “Sounds of Earth,” Beethoven’s Cavatina, greetings in 54 languages, and, most importantly to us, photographs that visually communicate facts about the physics, biology, sociology, and beauty of the pale blue dot we call home.

Originally the team (chaired by Carl Sagan) planned to include six photos: “The Earth, the DNA molecule, and a few shots of humans and animals.” But the images, which were converted into sound and written on the record, took up less space than anticipated. The capacity increased nearly 20-fold and 118 photos were included.

The photo of Earth included on the Golden Record.
The photo of Earth included on the Golden Record. Instructions on how to play back the sounds and images on the record were included with the disc along with a cartridge and a needle.
Photograph Courtesy of NASA

Every image chosen had to communicate as much information as possible as clearly as possible in order to be understood without any context. A list of subjects was compiled by astronomer Frank Drake. Sagan then tasked his artistic collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg, with curating the image sequence, a role he took very seriously.

“I found myself increasingly playing the role of extraterrestrial,” he says, “a mental exercise I had done in fun for many years (while playing Frisbee, for example, I’d ask myself, What would ETI make of this?). Only now it was in earnest. I would look at pictures and try to imagine that I’d never seen the subject before. How could the photograph be misinterpreted? What was ambiguous? How could scale be deduced?”

Lomberg and the team had only six weeks from start to finish to agree on the image edit, clear the rights, and actually fabricate the disc that would be used. In those six weeks they developed their “go to” image sources: the United Nations, Time, Sports Illustrated, NASA, and, most notably, National Geographic.

“Of the greatest assistance was the National Geographic Society,” Lomberg says in Murmurs of Earth, the handbook explaining anything and everything Golden Record-related. “In a way, they do routinely and on a larger scale what we were trying to do—give a full picture of Earth and its inhabitants.”

In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, carrying photos of our world with it. But even if our message never meets the eyes of extraterrestrials (or whatever sort of sensory receptors they might have), Lomberg considers Voyager and its message a huge success. “As long as the space program is remembered,” he says, “people will remember that we made this thing that tried to show Earth for aliens, and it’s out there, two of them are out there, and getting further from us with every passing hour.”

So without further ado, here are ten of the National Geographic images that are, at this very moment, hurtling through space. Each photo is followed by the rationale for its inclusion on the record, as excerpted from Lomberg’s Murmurs of Earth.

Picture of a diver passing coral reef and a school of fish
School of Fish
Photograph by David Doubilet

Sagan, [Frank] Drake and I are all enthusiastic scuba divers, and we wanted some good underwater shots. But as we were looking through pictures of reefs and fish, we realized there was no way one could tell for certain that the scene was underwater. The most unambiguous way of showing an underwater scene was to have a diver present, since the air bubbles rising from the regulator should furnish clear evidence of the aqueous medium. In addition, the presence of the diver would show that human beings were interested in exploring and adapting to various environments. It is no accident that many space buffs (including science-fiction writers and astronauts) are scuba divers. The weightlessness, the life-support system, and the complex and gorgeous world of the reef seem a preview of interstellar exploration. It’s as close as most of us can ever get. This photograph was taken in the reefs of the Red Sea off Na’ama Bay in Sinai.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of Jane Goodall and another person observing chimps in the forest
Scientists and Chimpanzees
Photograph by Vanne Morris-Goodall

This picture shows our near relatives being observed by two scientists, one of them the famous Jane Goodall. From the point of view of an extraterrestrial, chimps and human beings may be nearly identical—it seems likely that pictures of chimps dressed in cowboy suits would pass unnoticed by extraterrestrials. More human beings, they’d probably think. The fact that the human beings in this picture are studying the chimps may be a weak clue that the latter aren’t members of the race that made Voyager. On the other hand, it might appear that the chimps are the masters because the human beings are toting the gear. But we couldn’t leave out the primates. Also, the background shows a kind of vegetation not seen elsewhere: jungle growth.

This photograph was taken by Jane Goodall’s mother, Vanne Morris-Goodall. When we wrote her that we wanted to use the picture, she replied: “I am completely overawed by the knowledge that I once pressed the button for a photograph which is now on its way to outer space, and still more so because my daughter, Jane, has merited the unique honor of representing an area of study on the planet Earth.”—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of a woman raking leaves in a yard
Fallen Leaves
Photograph by Jodi Cobb

The growth on the trees has fallen off, and a human being seems to be collecting or raking it. The fact that the fallen leaves have changed from the green color seen in the leaves of other trees might indicate to the recipients this tree’s deciduous nature, and perhaps even something about the existence of several different photosynthetic pigments.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of people walking along the Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China
Photograph by H. Edward Kim

This was another suggestion made by Philip Morrison [ a scientist who helped compile the Voyager Records]. The Great Wall is one of the most tremendous engineering achievements of man, and it is also a product of one of the oldest and most important human cultures. It was difficult to find a shot that showed both the scale of the wall and a view of it close up. The National Geographic Society helpfully provided us with a number of photographs to choose from.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of a traditional dancer in Bali
Dancer From Bali
Photograph by Donna Grosvenor

This picture provides a clear presentation of human facial features and hands, and some suggestion of the complexities of dress and ornamentation found in most human cultures.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of Boston from the Charles River, with sail boats in the foreground
Boston From the Charles River
Photograph by Ted Spiegel

This represents the skyline of a modern city, showing skyscrapers. From the sailboats on the river it may be deduced that we like to live along rivers and coasts and that we use them for transportation (again emphasizing the importance of water on our planet and in our culture).—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of a father holding his daughter on his shoulder
Father and Child
Photograph by David Alan Harvey

To humans, this picture embodies the pride of parenthood. For us selecting it, it was a source of pleasure for additional reasons. You can see everything—the man’s ears (amazing how many pictures do not show ears) and teeth (ditto teeth); the child’s toes. The man’s eyes are directed toward the child (a girl, by the way), while the child looks at the camera—a clue that, along with other pictures, might suggest that eyes are organs of vision. Their possible motion is clearly shown here. The muscles in the man’s arm are well-defined. The skin tones show perfectly. And it is a beautiful, well-composed picture to boot.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of satellite dishes lined up along a path with bikers riding along it
Radio Telescope
Photograph by James P. Blair

An interferometer is an array of radio antennas that can function as a single telescope. Here a group of humans on bicycles [recognizable from another picture on the record] is sightseeing. Like a suspension bridge, the shape of the disk antenna is determined entirely by the job it must perform, and so it should be recognized by the radio astronomers of another species.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of a man on a horse riding through empty sand dunes accompanied by a dog
Sand Dunes
Photograph by George F. Mobley

This contains a lot of information about aeolian processes and dust-transport mechanisms in arid regions. A rider and his dog leave their tracks in the sand. We were afraid that the rider might be mistaken for a centaur. Later pictures make it clear that we have animals like horses and that we ride them … This is one of three pictures [on the record] that show dogs accompanying human beings. We hope the recipients will guess that dogs are our friends.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Picture of the sun setting over the ocean with a flock of geese in the sky
Photograph by David Alan Harvey

We felt that at least one picture ought to be chosen purely for its beauty, to say nothing more than how lovely our planet is. A sunset seemed a good choice. But I might point out that the reddening of light contains information about our atmosphere, and the silhouetted birds show the mechanism of avian flight.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Want to know more about Voyager? Explore more in this interactive feature.

Voyager isn’t the only spacecraft to contain a message for extraterrestrials. The spacecraft Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 contained pictorial messages for possible recipients providing information about the origin of the spacecraft.

There is now an effort underway to raise funds to upload a message digitally to the New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched in 2006 with the mission to explore Pluto and the Kuiper belt.

Thanks to Vincent J. Musi for sparking an interest in this topic at the 2016 National Geographic Photography Seminar.

There are 35 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Rachel
    June 7, 2016

    Great article! Check the spelling of Vanne Morris-Goodall’s first name in the body of the article.

    • Becky Harlan
      June 9, 2016

      Thank you so much for your comment and correction! The post has been updated.

  2. John William Duke
    May 18, 2016

    When I was a kid, my Pops and about 5 book shelves filled with nothing but National Geographic. The pictures and geography map inside them amazed me then like they still do now.

  3. Laura Handke
    May 15, 2016

    I am stunned by the beauty. Thank you for these rare and all-encompassing photos. I can’t imagine going through the decision process!

  4. Lisa
    May 9, 2016

    The picture of the lady may be beautiful to our eyes but aliens may think she has thorns coming out of her head, long nails ready to attack and spots on the face!!!

  5. edinboro creations
    May 8, 2016

    We are the universe and the universe is so small, the universe is us and the universe is so large.

  6. Cj
    May 7, 2016

    Let’s just leave god out of this wonderful story with its beautiful pictures. Not everyone believes in god and we should all respect everyone’s beliefs.

  7. kerry baker
    May 4, 2016

    And what if they decide they really like what they see? We should know better than anyone that the natives don’t do so well when other civilizations get too interested!

  8. Christa
    May 4, 2016

    Your ancestors might be monkeys, but mine are not. Mine are human beings, created by God. AGREE.
    Thank you for your beautiful pictures. I always enjoy your articles. GOD is great in His creation. Let’s appreciate this.

  9. Stabber
    April 30, 2016

    Are we the monkeys, or the fish?

  10. aguiar
    April 30, 2016

    I’m kind of your pictures, and so gratefull of that.Thank you so much

  11. Laura
    April 30, 2016

    I wish I could have been apart of this project. The Earths history is so extensive. The way our planet produced life, and how we adapted to all the environments Earth has to offer. I hope whatever finds this interprets it as it was intended.

  12. Denis villeneuve
    April 29, 2016

    Thanks for shairing these with us lol on the creationist guy

  13. Ron
    April 29, 2016

    It’s amazing to me that no matter what the subject matter, someone has to inject religion into their comments. To Ken, your ancestors and mine are the same, and believe what you like, though they’re not chimps, our ancestors are undeniably other primates. Wake up and look beyond superstitions.

  14. Shreyansh Payaal
    April 29, 2016

    This is such a beautiful step taken for communicating with extra-terristrials.

  15. Sajeevan
    April 29, 2016

    I’ve heard of this, thanks for showing the pics

  16. Rhkennerly
    April 28, 2016

    It is not stupid to leave some record off of the earth that we at one time existed. Dominant life on this Earth has been “remade” many times in the past. We’ve come close to nuclear wars, had volcanos so massive that they wiped out growing seasons several yeas in a row, & been struck by many mammoth meteors. Now there is climate change.

    No, it’s good we’ve dropped these postcards in the cosmic mailbox.

  17. Arnold Markowitz
    April 28, 2016

    it might be so, as someone said. that a rock could communicate more info than these pix–but the project’s purpose was to show other civilizations pictures. anyone wanting to show them rocks is welcome to do that.

  18. Joe A. Todd
    April 28, 2016

    The pictures are gorgeous. I’m not sure we should be telling potential extra-terrestrials so much about us.

  19. Ken Hartlein
    April 28, 2016

    Your ancestors might be monkeys, but mine are not. Mine are human beings, created by God.

  20. yubiafan1000
    April 28, 2016

    i think yubia hit the head on the nail

  21. Darren David
    April 28, 2016

    Great comment, yubia! You really elevated the discourse here and provided valuable insight.

  22. Claude Rallins
    April 28, 2016

    It appears, based on images recently unlocked from crystals, extraterrestrials have had a ‘lens’ on earth for centuries. Some crystals also share ‘ET outreach’ images. See Extraterrestrial TV.

    Also, earth has broadcasting images into space for nearly 100 light years now.

  23. Moises
    April 28, 2016

    How does it show aliens to eatrh

  24. yubia
    April 28, 2016

    this is stupied

  25. Gauri
    April 28, 2016

    With all due respect, and keeping aside the fact that most of these are incredibly beautiful, we are so limited in our understanding of the universe, we, in sending these pictures assume that the alien life will have eyes, see colors, understand that this piece is meant to communicate. We have learnt to make sense of this, even a human brain may not make sense out of these, if he never saw water, or trees or other human beings. If they are (relatively) basic life forms like mushrooms, this is of no use. If they are really advanced, even a rock from earth would communicate more than these pictures.

  26. Ed Jarret
    April 28, 2016

    Well presented! Perhaps a picture of human conflict, medical healing or religious worship would have rounded out the Earth’s happenings.

  27. Silas S
    April 28, 2016

    It’s now clear at least to a certain extent that space exploration is influenced by fiction and an urge to decipher the endless.

    If not, why does one want to communicate with fictional aliens when the earth is filled with humans willing to cohabit?

  28. Rene Roberta Haynes
    April 28, 2016

    I so very much enjoyed reading this article! Those were some great photos that were sent to our prospective intergalactic friends… <3

  29. Glenda Cooper
    April 27, 2016

    Cool, but it doesn’t show suburban Western cultures, where most of the knowledge of space exists.

  30. Sarah
    April 27, 2016

    This is amazing! I am so glad I got to learn about this incredible story!

  31. Nell
    April 27, 2016

    Amazing! Thank you for posting this!

    April 27, 2016


  33. calton
    April 27, 2016

    that tottaly makes sense

  34. Buzcall John
    April 27, 2016

    It’s a great idea but I doubt anyone will ever see it again consider the timescale our existence a mere tick in the scale of the universe

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