In the summer of 1977, NASA launched an ambitious and far-reaching pair of deep space satellites that were destined to become humanity’s most distant messengers.
Meet Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, twin satellites whose sole purpose is to traverse the boundaries of our solar system and interstellar space.
The Voyager twins are exploring where nothing from Earth has ever gone before: into the cold expanses of interstellar space, beyond the solar system, beyond Pluto and Neptune.
The Voyager Mission came about as a result of a syzygy, a frustratingly complex word but a fascinating phenomenon, which occurred when Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were in a rare alignment. It was calculated that the satellites would be able to visit all four gas giants using the gravity of each planet to launch the satellites from one to the next, and saving fuel that could, at a later date, be used to perform other maneuvers.
This alignment occurs only once every 176 years.
The Birth of the Voyager Program
The Voyager program was actually birthed under the Mariner Program as Mariner 11 and 12, but their quick advancement in capabilities and purpose during development made NASA feel that they merited their own separate name.
The newly renamed Voyager 1 and 2 soon launched, with Voyager 2 launching before its figurative “elder brother”, on the 20th of August 1977. Voyager 1 was launched two weeks later, on the 5th of September 1977 and sent back this awe-inspiring photo of the Earth and the Moon.
The two spacecraft were named for the order they would arrive at Jupiter, not the order they were launched. Although Voyager 1 launched three weeks after Voyager 2, its faster trajectory resulted in it arriving at Jupiter four months before Voyager 2. Voyager 2 took an alternate, slower trajectory that allowed close passes of Uranus and Neptune.
Did You Know?
The Voyager Interstellar Mission has the potential for obtaining useful interplanetary, and possibly interstellar, fields, particles, and waves science data until around the year 2020 when the spacecraft’s ability to generate adequate electrical power for continued science instrument operation will come to an end.
After turning 40 years old this August and September, the Voyager satellites represent something more than just cold metal wrapped with fancy gadgets and a radio. They represent a vision. A vision that legends like Carl Sagan held for the future of humanity, which he expresses in his characteristic, humble and eloquent way; Sagan reminded us that even though our existence is a miracle and that our lives are shaped by chance encounters, that is exactly what makes it all – makes us all special.
There will be other people and other civilizations, and they will be different from us. Our civilization is the product of a particular path our ancestors have followed among the vagaries of historical alternatives. Had events of the distant past taken a slightly different turn, our surroundings and thought processes, what we find natural and hold dear, might be very different. Despite our every sense that things should of course be the way that they are, the details of our particular civilization are extraordinarily unlikely, and it is easy to imagine a set of historical events which would have led to a rather different civilization… This lack of historical determinism in the details of a civilization means that those details are of extraordinary value, not just to professional historians but to all who wish to understand the nature of culture. I think it is this respect for the integuments of a civilization that, above all other reasons, make us sympathetic to the enterprise of time capsuling.
Messages for the Future (The Golden Records)
The Voyager probes and its sister missions such as Pioneer 10 & 11 are our most distant ‘hellos’. Over the next few million years, they’ll pass close enough to other stars and planets to possibly come into contact with other intelligent life.
Knowing this, Sagan and his team had the incredible foresight to include a plaque on the Voyager probes with a lot of different information. From images to audio and diagrams to star maps, the ‘Golden Records’ are in a way, a time capsule, one that allows us to say to whatever that may be out there, “Hello! This is who we are.” or depending on whether humankind will exist when ‘aliens’ find these, it may be our only chance to say, “Hello. We existed. This is what we were.”
“The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, et. al. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this, they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.”
Carl Sagan knew that humanity was too vast, elaborate and intricate to only be described by scientific experiments and information. Our artistic, emotional and physical footprints were our unique trace.
“Around the same time, Sagan realized that 1977 was the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. 1977 was also the year when Peter Goldmark, inventor of the long-playing record, perished in a tragic car-crash. Thanks to this bittersweet symmetry and the suggestions of his technological advisors, Sagan decided to encode humanity’s message on a record. And thus the Golden Record was born.”
The question still remains, and as it is bound to for thousands of years, is there anyone out there?
We don’t know and perhaps we never will, but if, in the face of uncertainty of our purpose and the certainty of our demise, there is one thing that is certain, it is this. The universe does not exist for us and the stars do not shine brightly for us, they just do. In all this gloom, our purpose is created by what we choose to live, fight, love and die for.
Maybe the purpose of the Voyager missions and the Golden Records is not so much to teach us about outer space as much as it is to teach us about ourselves.
“There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit, and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.” – B.M Oliver
There’s a lot of information out there, and you can learn more about the Golden Records browsing the sources below.
On a human scale
I understand if this is all too much to grasp in one go. Here’s the journey visualized on a scale more relative to us.
The Future of the Voyager Missions
The Voyager twins have certainly seen beautiful and marvelous sights in their lifetimes, and by some extent of the human imagination, if they were humans, one could look at them and think to themselves, “Oh, the stories that these two could tell!”
From the thunderous storms of Jupiter, the captivating rings of Saturn, the blue sights of Uranus and Neptune, the Voyager mission has created not only scientific intrigue but one of inspiration as well.
Alas, it is not so. The Voyager probes, now 40 years old, will go on to out-exist the very societies that they so greatly define. The Voyager twins are humanity’s gift to the universe, a humble little token to anyone or anything that may be out there. The universe is the crowd, and Voyager is the street musician playing music for the community.
Our sights, sounds, and experiences may all be temporary, but the ripples of our actions are everlasting in the big pond that we fondly call Earth. Perhaps the existential dread comes from knowing too much about our existence. In our highs and lows, our actions are all just screaming, “I was here.” Even when we look at the pyramids or the handprints of the earliest humans in caves, we can hear them wailing “I was here” in the distance.
We realize that our existence is an infinitesimal fragment of all humankind, but that teaches us that there is no reason to not live a life of fulfillment if this is the only shot we have.
The profound realization of a mortal life.
On a note of closing, I would like to share my inspiration for this post, this video by Vsauce: