Per Aspera Ad Astra

Kipper, Going Postal

I am an atheist. I find the concept of a higher power or “God”, if you will, simultaneously highly feasible yet completely irrational. If a god is to reveal itself to me in my later life I will not be surprised, but if I live my life through and it transpires that there is no greater power than man. I will also be void of surprise, not that I will be able to conceive it upon my death.

I do my utmost to use reason. To look at the facts in an objective manner and draw conclusions from that which I can observe and know to be true. This is why I myself look up to Voyager. Voyager exists, we know this. Voyager is the most distant mark our species has on the galaxy. Since departing on its mission on September 5th, 1977, Voyager has traveled over 20,775,000,000 kilometers from earth [1]. Alone, unaccompanied, Voyager marches on in to the wide expanse of our universe. Destined to find something out there. A new planet to orbit, a black hole to enter, perhaps even become the foundations of a new planet or even, dare I dream, the edge of the universe. What is known is that Voyager will long outlive me, indeed, my species and the planet I call home. Long after the Earth is consumed by the (red Giant) sun in around 7.6 billion years.

Kipper, Going Postal
Last Image Reported from Voyager

You see ‘the pale blue dot’? That’s us. That’s Earth. That’s all our species ever has been, all our species is and likely all our species ever will be. There we are, framed in darkness. This is earth from over 6,000,000,000 Kilometers away. The last image voyager took and returned to earth before continuing upon its great journey into the unknown. This last image of our planet in all our celestial insignificance was the last of nearly 19,000 images that voyager took. One last goodbye. However, this image itself taken as Voyager was leaving the far reach of Neptune’s moon Triton. Yet of all the magnificent images Voyager took, of all the knowledge we have gained from Voyager’s exploration. The most famous image is one of earth. A picture of home.

Here are some of the best Voyager has to offer:

Kipper, Going Postal

 

Kipper, Going Postal

 

Kipper, Going Postal

For as long as we have gazed to the stars we looked equally to the ground. Much of what we know about the universe is based upon what we know to be true of earth. Which is why it is so fitting that voyager’s most famous image is one of earth. It is hard to comprehend how unfathomably small we are in the unimaginable void of darkness that is the universe, but unimaginable for good reason. All we know is earth. All we can conceivably comprehend is our little slice of our vast planet. Indeed, all we experience is our small pocket of time we have clinging to our speck of dust, spinning at roughly 1600 kilometers an hour, orbiting our sun at 107,000 kilometers an hour, mowing around the central cluster of our galaxy as a solar system at 828,000 kilometers an hour, and finally moving as a galaxy towards what we can only call the ‘Great Attractor’ at 2,200,000 kilometers an hour. Our speck of dust is our space ship. One where we are born, where we live and where we die.

 

Kipper, Going Postal

Yet for many of us the earth is our universe. Only 12 men in history have ever set foot on any other surface than Earth, indeed, no human has ever left the gravitational pull of our planet. The twelve men who were lucky enough to have walked on the moon were merely standing on a rock that is orbiting our planet. In the perspective of the whole universe, man travelling to the moon would be the equivalent to you stepping out of your front door. It makes sense that all our interstellar explorations are geocentric. Even the messages we have sent out into the universe are clearly designed with earth in mind.

Kipper, Going Postal

There are some issues with this message to the outer world. We don’t know how any extra-terrestrials that may encounter the Golden Record may communicate. We don’t even know if they are able to hear, and most fundamentally the message is on a record. Having had a proper childhood I know how to play a record, but I would wager good money that most people below the age of 30 wouldn’t have the first clue what to even do with a record but alas the Golden Record is out there now. A 12-inch gold plated copper disc travelling the great expanse of our solar system aboard Voyager. Encapsulated an aluminium case and electroplated upon it is an ultra-pure sample of Uranium-238. with a half-life of 4,468,000,000 years as to allow any species that may pick the disc up be able to age the disc and voyager by analysing the ratio of remaining to depleted Uranium. But enough of the science. Let’s talk about the furthest physical message our species has sent into the abyss of the universe. The cover contains instructions on how to play the record, instructions on how to decode the audio signals into the 115 images on the record. It also gives our solar systems location relative to 14 pulsars, and a basic diametric measurement of time. A drawing of the hydrogen atom in its two lowest states, with a connecting line and digit 1 to indicate that the time interval associated with the transition from one state to the other is to be used as the fundamental time scale. Let’s talk about the audio contents of the record. Carl Sagan, possibly the most famous astrophysicist of the last century, chaired the committee that acted in the name of our species by deciding what went on the record. What sounds, images and even what was to be said. The most powerful in my mind is the message as read by President Jimmy Carter. President Carter read:

“This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some–perhaps many–may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

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. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.”

These are powerful words. Words that I take great comfort in. While I personally will be remembered by my children and grandchildren I will likely be forgotten in a handful of centuries. Yet the memory of my species will live on for billions, if not trillions, of years. Other than this highly deep message the record contains many sounds of our planet, water flowing, waves crashing, animals such as birds, whales and babies. Even laughter and footsteps. As well as greetings in 55 different languages. The English offering was read by Nick Sagan, six year old son of Carl Sagan, reciting:

“Hello from the children of planet Earth”

Alas the hopes we have of Voyager being found by another species are distant in both likelihood and time. It is highly unlikely that voyager will ever leave our galaxy. However there are a sufficient number of stars with planets in habitable orbit for voyager to possibly encounter on its great journey. It will take 300 years until Voyager even begins to exit our solar system. In around 300 years, Voyager will enter the Oort Cloud and 30,000 years after that, maybe, just maybe, will Voyager will emerge and finally leave our solar system.

Kipper, Going Postal

I’ve written this article because today marks the 40th year of voyager journey. Who knows how long voyager will travel into the deep abyss before it meets its fate. Another year, another 10 years, another million years, another billion years?

Happy birthday Voyager. You are not forgotten.

© Kipper
 

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/voyager/mission/status/ (link to NASA website providing live updates on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2)
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJhgZBn-LHg (Incredible video explaining the detailed movements of the earth)
  3. http://goldenrecord.org/ (Website containing all the images, songs and sounds on the Golden Record)