Dear Universe, Sincerely Earth

In 1977, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) launched Voyager 1 and 2 on a mission titled theVoyager Interstellar Mission (VIM).  This ambitious mission had three distinct phases: the termination shock, heliosheath exploration and interstellar exploration.  During the first phase, now complete, the Voyager spacecrafts were designed to explore the outer gas giants and send back information and images about them.  The crafts returned over 67,000 photographs of the gas giants and forever transformed our understanding of other worlds.  As they continued past the gas giants, and eventually past Pluto, they were ordered to turn back and take a picture of our solar system.  The image received in 1990 depicted the Earth as a speck suspended in a sunbeam and inspired Carl Sagan’s 1994 bookPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

The termination shock phase officially ended in November 2004 when the Voyager 1 passed into the Kupier Belt and the heliosheath – passing the termination shock where solar wind is slowed by pressure from gas between other stars.  Today the Voyager 1 is farther away from Earth than any other object we have built – and it is continuing its journey into the Universe at a speed of 16 km per second.  It still has five working instruments (down from 11) aboard that are sending back information to Earth about its current location and all data indicate that it will be the first human-made object to enter interstellar space.  Although NASA only has a rough estimate it should reach interstellar space between 2014 and 2024.  As soon as it does we should know about it because Voyager 1 has enough power and propellant to communicate with Earth until approximately 2025.

After 2025 the Voyagers will no longer be communicating with us, but they will continue to drift throughout the galaxy and be the ambassadors of our species and our planet.  They will outlast the pyramids, and almost everything we’ve constructed.  They may outlast our species and even our planet.  They are destined to float through our galaxy for as long as there is a galaxy to circle.  While it is unlikely that another civilization would find them, they were equipped with a complex message from our species.  On both Voyager 1 and 2 there are ‘Golden Records’ which are phonographs that contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on our planet.  There are instructions using a potentially universal code on how to play the record.

If the record were ever found, it would most certainly be by an advanced interstellar civilization in the far future.  If they understood how to play it they would be exposed to 116 images that include the solar system, the planets, DNA, human anatomy, a broad range of humans from different cultures, both in portrait style and going about day-to-day tasks.  The record also includes a variety of natural sounds (e.g., surf, wind, thunder, animals) and music from Aborigine song, Indian raga, Azerbaijani bagpipes, bamboo flutes, Bach, Beethoven, Guan Pinghu, Mozart, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry and Kesarbai Kerkar.  The team that assembled the record requested The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” but were turned down by the band’s record company.  The record also includes spoken greetings in several different languages, starting with Akkadian and ending with modern Chinese.  Finally, the record includes greetings from world leaders, including United States President Jimmy Carter who said “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings.  We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”

Of course, it is unlikely that Voyager 1 or 2 will ever actually be detected by another civilization.  They are very small and they are roaming an unimaginably massive cosmos in a galaxy that may not be inhabited by any other intelligent, technologically complex life forms.  However, the Voyager Golden Records are still of fantastic importance, as they represent the best of our species and what our species may become one day.  As Carl Sagan said in regards to the Voyager Golden Records:

“the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

 

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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