Hurtling away from us, further and further into the depths of the deep black of the cosmos, the two Voyager spacecraft missions have a much longer time scale than the conventional NASA project.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts have been continuously transmitting information as they explored the cosmos, and more recently, interstellar space.
It was discovered by Gary Flandro that in the 70’s, that a special planetary alignment would occur, which took place only once every 175 years, allowing for ‘gravitational assists’ to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
The ‘gravitational assists’ involves making use of a planet’s gravitational pull to ‘swing’ the probe past it, meaning that an on-board propulsion system for the crafts wasn’t required. To put it into perspective, the use of the ‘gravitational assist’ reduced the flight time to Neptune from 30 to 12 years.
The original Voyager mission involved them exploring Jupiter and Saturn only, plus their respective moons. The probes were designed to last only five years, but as each objective was successfully completed, the spacecrafts underwent additional flybys of Uranus and Neptune.
All the while, the spacecrafts sent back beautiful images of the planets they encountered, along with incredibly valuable readings on things such as magnetic fields.
Slowly, over the decades, the scientists over at NASA have turned off almost all of the instruments on the spacecrafts, to conserve valuable power, so that they can continue to send data back to Earth. As of August 2018, Voyager 1 is 13.2 billion miles away from home, while Voyager 2 is a little closer at 10.9 billion miles away.
Both spacecrafts are currently cruising through interstellar space, and Voyager 1 is the most distant man made object away from us, and was the first to leave the solar system.
But the Voyager spacecrafts represent so much more than just another couple of probes sent out by NASA over the years. They are the physical embodiment of our innate yearning to explore, to reach out as far as we possibly can and to make it known that we were here, on this tiny blue and green rock hurtling around yet another seemingly insignificant star.
Pale Blue Dot
Much alike a momentary speck of dust floating into view as it slices through a sunbeam, our entire world was captured here, in a small section of the ‘Portrait of the Planets’ mosaic, with this particular image known as ‘Pale Blue Dot’.
Taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, at a distance of six billion kilometres from home, it is to me perhaps the most significant photograph of the twentieth century.
Even at the edge of the solar system, we look so small, so tiny. All of our governments, fallen warriors, technological advances and traffic jams fill but a mere 0.12 pixels here, meaning at this distance from our planet, Earth would only barely be visible to the naked eye.
Carl Sagan put forth the idea to take the images in 1980, just after the Saturn flyby and 10 years later, Voyager 1 pointed itself back towards us one last time, and took the images, one of which included ‘Pale Blue Dot’.
These series of pictures were the last ever taken and sent back to Earth by Voyager 1, as the NASA team turned off it’s camera in 1990 to further conserve power.
I cannot find better words to describe what this image represents that Carl Sagan did in his speech in 1994, so I’ll quote him below.
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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 . . .
To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
In the taking of this image, the Voyager 1 spacecraft gifted us perhaps the most unique perspective of our world, to date. Maybe in seeing this image, and by contemplating our place in the universe, our mindset can be shifted away from belonging only to our respective country’s, religions and ethnicities, to simply belonging to one species, one people, on a pale blue dot.
Going forward, especially with relatively recent technological developments, such as the hydrogen bomb, it is crucial that we think of all peoples as belonging to one species whose survival we should value above all else. If we do not, then we will ultimately be blinded by our prejudices and our species will fade from existence, and we will lose the chance for anyone to acknowledge we were even here in the first place.
Prelude to the Golden Records
It seems to me, that there is a common theme that has spanned almost the entirety of human existence: our desire to be remembered.
We’ve found evidence of this on cave walls in Argentina, where 10,000 years ago humans held their hands up to the rock, and blew a kind of primitive ink over them, creating stencils that have lasted millennia.
We know plenty about the people that lived back then; what they ate, where they sheltered, the tools they used, but these are just facts that describe how they survived, little more than could be said when describing a herd of animals. Due to these people pre-dating written word it’s difficult to get a sense of their innermost feelings.
Imagine a mirror frosted by steam after you took a warm shower. Place your hand on the surface for a second, and you’re left with an opportunity to glimpse at the person whose hand had been there a moment prior. To me, the hand stencils have the same effect. Though the blurry outline of a hand, there is revealed a unique individual. Someone with the ability to think beyond their own lifetime by making a lasting impression on their environment. Thus, the seemingly insignificant, trivial action of marking one’s hand on a cave wall becomes an intimate handshake, piercing through the veil of time.
It is probably just coincidental, but looking at this in modern times, it looks as if the group of early humans lifted their hands to us, as we often do, to casually say ‘hello’.
Now, what exactly are the Golden Records, you ask?
Attached to the side of each of the Voyager probes, is a circular golden plaque, that when decoded, acts as a time capsule of the human race.
As the first objects of human creation to enter interstellar space, to drift out of our solar system into the deep black beyond, it seemed fitting to have made the probes to not simply serve the purpose of sending information back to us, but to carry information about the human race out into the stars, in the bleak hope that one day, another intelligent species would discover it, and know that they are not alone in the cosmos.
It is very much likely that this event will never occur. If it does, it could be billions of years in the future, long after the span of all human life had run it’s course, and faded from existence, forever.
Etched onto the front of the records, are instructions for decoding the information on the records. The top left indicates how to play the record with the stylus provided, and the speed at which the disk should rotate. But of course, all of these instructions must be universal, in the most literal sense of the term; the intended recipients of the messages within will reside in a totally different part of space, whose minds may be incomprehensibly more complex than our own. Therefore, a ‘second’ would make no sense to them. It’s ultimately a made up division of time, based solely on a fraction of the duration of a day on Earth. So we need a baseline to translate any idea of time to the extraterrestrials. That’s where the bottom right comes in, there, is shown the two lowest states of the hydrogen atom, (the simplest and most abundant element in the universe) connected via a line. The number ‘1’ is shown also. The amount of time it takes from one isotope to transition to the next is our fundamental time scale on the record. So now we can translate at which speed to play the disk.
Shown in the bottom left, is a galactic map, if you will, showing the location of our solar system, relative to fourteen pulsars. I’m guessing they’ll be around for a while, so the aliens will be able to understand where these further alien probe came from in the first place. (Remember we are as alien to them as they are to us.)
But from WHEN did it come, they may ask. Don’t worry, we thought of that too. NASA placed some uranium-238 on the record, which will fully decay in 4.51 billion years. Using the half life of uranium, any intelligent species out there will be able to work out how old the probe is, given that they find it within 4.51 billion years. Time’s ticking.
Images on the records
This is only a fraction of the images on the record. They may look like a completely random mosaic of unrelated gibberish. But here lies our attempt to represent our home and our mighty species.
All that we are is laid bare for them to see.
I can’t find the words to describe what is being shown here. But there’s one simple fact. One day there won’t be anybody left to watch the setting of our sun, and to feel hope in the crimson streaks that paint the sky. There won’t be anybody left to admire our architecture, or to pray to the many Gods that man has knelt to over the millennia. To preserve these precious things, we packed them up and launched them into the unknown, in the hope that once again, our world will be cherished. After all, our world will only exist until the last person to remember it has passed. This is our best hope right now to stretch out our existence for the longest amount of time possible.
The audio on the disk
Perhaps the most profound film I’ve watched, and that has shaped me the most, is Interstellar. I’ll talk about the film another time in detail, but there is a scene where the main characters are in their spacecraft, passing by Saturn. To combat home sickness, one man is listening to the sounds of a thunderstorm. How mundane that must seem to most. But when you don’t dedicate a second’s thought to it, all of the beauty in the sound of a thunderstorm is lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. To us, a rainstorm is just background noise; of no importance whatsoever, why would rain be important anyways? Weather is forever right? But one day there won’t be a sky to cry raindrops from, or a rain forest for them to collect into, and the sound of rainfall overlaying the wildlife will be lost in the wind, with that too having blown it’s last breath.
The juxtaposition of the sounds of the thunderstorm against the harshness, silence and destitute nature of space allowed the beauty of our planet to blossom before the viewer, alike a time-lapse of a flower opening itself as spring progresses.
I hope one day a far away people will experience this too, as one of the audio tracks on the disk is in fact thunder. The last thunderstorm will be dry. It will be dressed in the persistent confusion alike that which shrouds our minds when waking from a deep sleep, where sense can be made of nothing. These distant beings won’t know the feeling of standing under an open cloud, or the fresh scent of recently fallen rain, these sounds are the best we can provide. But it’ll never be enough. Only we will ever truly know Earth.
There is also a recording of many people from a range of countries, saying hello in their own tongues. Any beings that listen to this probably won’t know what it means, but we are a diverse people, and it wouldn’t be right to not let as many different people say hello as possible.
Along with this, there is also music. Something we are all familiar with. There is music from a whole host of different nations, spanning a great stretch of time. Music is such an integral part of our society, and has been almost from the beginning. If we are to attempt to help other beings in understanding what we are…what we were, then these melodies are an essential addition.
There was included one more thing on the record. A recording of the brainwaves of the wife of Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, as she meditated for an hour, and pondered on the history of Earth, life, and what it means to be human.
The final thought of hers while she meditated is to me the most profound and beautiful aspect of the entire record, of the entire mission in fact.
Thinking about it, there is and perhaps will never will be a more refined and well rounded description of what it feels like to be human, sent out into the stars.
What she thought of, was what it felt like to fall in love.
We have had written word now for thousands of years. Poets and writers, prophets and priests have all moulded language into their desired shape to convey their passions, to convey love. But like trying to roll a sphere using Plasticine between your palms, it will always be imperfect. There will always be a greater degree to which more roundness can be added.
Language by itself, images, sound, is imperfect like our palms in the anecdote. It has limits, boundaries a thousand miles in every direction when trying to describe to the fullest extent the feeling of love. The feelings are contained within our minds. The recording of Sagan’s wife’s brainwaves while she contemplated falling in love is the closest we can currently get to translating what it feels like to extraterrestrials.
Love is the most human trait in existence. The feeling and experience of tripping, falling, stumbling into it will never be experienced as we know it by any other organism. It is the most fundamental human journey.
When you condense all of human history into one single focal point, a few minutes long, strip all remnants of culture, religion, age, and point in time, what is left, is love.
Maybe one day the Voyager spacecrafts will be found. I hope that the civilisation that falls upon them is advanced, and has the means to decode the recordings of Ann Druyan’s brainwaves, as it is there, where the far away beings will catch the most concentrated glimpse into what it is to be human.