Voyager to a Star

by Paul Gilster on December 24, 2015

The essay that follows is a much expanded version of a brief post that ran here last April, the idea being to give our Voyager spacecraft one last (symbolic) mission. It will run later this year in a publication called ‘Handbook of the Unknowable,’ produced by Espen Gangvik (Director Trondheim Biennale, Norway) and edited by Rachel Armstrong (Newcastle University, UK) and Rolf Hughes (Stockholm University of the Arts). The book will appear in conjunction with Meta.Morf 2016, a recurring Scandinavian festival dedicated to art and technology, which convenes this year in Trondheim. Armstrong, a familiar figure here on Centauri Dreams, tells me that the Handbook will use its essays, poetry, fiction and art to explore our engagement with space and our future among the stars. Meta.Morf 2016 will take place on March 10-11, and I commend both it and the Handbook to you. More on the event as we get closer. Let me also take this opportunity to wish all my readers the very best for the holidays.

voyager (1)

After Voyager 2 flew past Neptune in 1989, much of the world assumed that the story was over, for there were no further planetary encounters possible. But science was not through with the Voyagers then, and it is not through with the Voyagers now. In one sense, they have become a testbed for showing us how long a spacecraft can continue to operate. In a richer sense, they illustrate how an adaptive and curious species can offer future generations the gift of ‘deep time,’ taking its instruments forward into multi-generational missions of interstellar scope.

Now 18.8 billion kilometers from Earth, Voyager 1, which took a much different trajectory than its counterpart by leaving the ecliptic due to its encounter with Saturn’s moon Titan, is 118 times as far from the Sun as the Earth (118 AU). Round trip radio time is over 37 hours. We now believe the craft has left the heliosphere, a ‘bubble’ that is puffed up and shaped by the stream of particles from the Sun called the ‘solar wind.’ Voyager 1 has become our first interstellar spacecraft, and it will keep transmitting until about 2025. Voyager 2, its twin, is currently 109 AU out — 16.4 billion kilometers from the Sun — with a round-trip radio time of over 30 hours.

Throughout history we have filled in the dark places in our knowledge with the products of our imagination, gradually ceding these visions to reality as expeditions crossed oceans and new lands came into view. The Greek historian Plutarch comments that “geographers… crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea…” But deserts get crossed, first by individuals, then by caravans, and frozen seas yield to the explorer with dog-sled and ice-axe.

Voyager and the Long Result

Space is stuffed our imaginings, and despite our telescopes, what we find as we explore continues to surprise us. Voyager showed us unexpected live volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and the billiard ball-smooth surface of Europa, one that seems to conceal an internal ocean. We saw an icy Enceladus, now known to spew geysers, and a smog-shrouded Titan. We found ice volcanoes on Neptune’s moon Triton and a Uranian moon — Miranda — with a geologically tortured surface and a cliff that is the highest known in the Solar System.

But the Voyagers are likewise an encounter with time. The issue raises its head because we are still communicating with spacecraft launched almost forty years ago. I doubt many would have placed a wager on the survival of electronics and internal mechanisms to this point, but these are the very issues raised by our explorations, for we still have trouble pushing any payload up to speeds equalling Voyager 1’s 17.1 kilometers per second. To explore the outer Solar System, and indeed to travel beyond it, is to create journeys measured in decades. With the Voyagers as an example, we may one day learn to harden and upgrade our craft for millennial journeys.

New Horizons took nine years to reach Pluto and its large moon Charon. To reach another star? An unthinkable 70,000 years-plus at Voyager 1 speeds, which is why the propulsion problem looms large as we think about dedicated missions beyond the Solar System. If light itself takes over 18 hours to reach Voyager 1, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is a numbing 4.2 light years away. To travel at even a paltry one percent of lightspeed, far beyond our capabilities today, would mean a journey to Proxima Centauri lasting well over four centuries.

What is possible near-term? Ralph McNutt, a veteran aerospace designer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, has proposed systems that could take a probe to 1000 AU in less than fifty years, giving us the chance to study the Oort Cloud of comets at what may be its inner edge. Now imagine that system ramped up ten times faster, perhaps boosted by a close pass by the Sun and a coordinated shove from a next-generation engine. Now we can anticipate a probe that could reach the Alpha Centauri stars in about 1400 years. Time begins to curl back on itself — we are talking trip times as great as the distance between the fall of Rome and today.

The interesting star Epsilon Eridani, some 10.5 light years out, would be within our reach in something over three thousand years. Go back that far in human history and you would see Sumerian ziggurats whose star maps faced the sky, as our ancestors confronted the unknown with imagined constellations and traced their destinies through star-based prognostications. The human impulse to explain seems universal, as is the pushing back of frontiers. And if these travel times seem preposterous, they’re worth dwelling on, because they help us see where we are with space technology today, and where we’ll need to be to reach the stars.

A certain humility settles in. While we work to improve propulsion systems, ever mindful that breakthroughs can happen in ways that no one expects, we also have to look at the practicalities of long-haul spaceflight. Both Voyagers have become early test cases in how long a spacecraft can last. They also force us to consider how things last in our own civilization. We have buildings on Earth — the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Pantheon in Rome — that have been maintained for longer than the above Alpha Centauri flight time. A so-called ‘generation ship,’ with crew living and dying aboard the craft, may one day make the journey.

Engagement with deep time is not solely a matter of technology. In the world of business and commerce, our planet boasts abundant examples of companies that have been handed down for centuries within the same family. Construction firm Kongo Gumi, for example, was founded in Osaka in 578, and ended business activity only in 2007, being operated at the end by the 40th generation of the family involved. The Buddhist Shitennoji Temple and many other well known buildings in Japanese history owe much to this ancient firm.

The Japanese experience is instructive. Hoshi Ryokan is an innkeeping company founded in Komatsu in 718 and now operated by the family’s 46th generation. If you’re ever in Komatsu, you can go to a hotel that has been doing business on the site ever since. Nor do we have to stay in Japan. Fonderia Pontificia Marinelli has been making bells in Agnore, Italy since the year 1000, while the firm of Richard de Bas, founded in 1326, continues to make paper in Amvert d’Auvergne, providing its products for the likes of Braque and Picasso.


Making Missions that Last

We have long-term thinking in our genes, as the planners of the Pyramids must have assumed. The Long Now Foundation, which studies issues relating to trans-generational thinking and the long-term survival of artifacts, has pointed out that computer code has its own kind of longevity. Enduring like the Sphinx, deeply planted software tools like the Unix kernel may well be operational a thousand years from now. Jon Lomberg and the team behind the One Earth Message — an attempt to transmit a kind of digital ‘Golden Record’ to the New Horizons spacecraft as a catalog of the human condition — estimate that the encoded data will survive at least one hundred thousand years, and perhaps up to a million if given sufficient redundancy.

‘Deep time’ takes us well beyond quarterly stock reports, and even beyond generational boundaries, an odd place to be for a culture that thrives on the slickly fashionable. It’s energizing to know that there is a superstructure that persists. The Voyagers are uniquely capable of keeping this fact in front of us because we see them defying the odds and surviving.

Consider: Only a single instrument on Voyager 1 has broken down since its 1977 launch. Nine other instruments have been powered down on both craft to save critical power resources, but each Voyager has five still-funded experiments and seven that are still delivering data. Stamatios “Tom” Krimigis (JHU/APL) is on record as saying “I suspect it’s going to outlast me.”

Krimigis is one of two principal investigators still on the Voyager mission, out of an original eleven, and the only remaining original member of the Voyager instrument team. His work involves instruments that can measure the flow of charged particles. Such instruments — low-energy charged particle (LECP) detectors — report on the flow of ions, electrons and other charged particles from the solar wind, but because they demanded a 360-degree view, they posed a problem. Voyager had to keep its antenna pointed at the Earth at all times, so the spacecraft couldn’t turn. This meant that the tools needed included an electric motor and a swivel mechanism that could swing back and forth for decades without seizing up in the cold vacuum of space.

The solution was offered by a California company called Schaeffer Magnetics. Krimigis’ team tested the contractor’s four-pound motor, ball bearings and dry lubricant. The company ran the motorized system through half a million ‘steps’ without failure. After more than 5 million steps, the instruments are still working, still detecting a particle flow that is evidently a mix of solar and interstellar particles, one that is moving in a flow perpendicular to the spacecraft’s direction of travel, so that it appears we’re just on the edge of interstellar space, a place where the medium is roiled and frothy, like ocean currents meeting each other and rebounding.

One Last Burn

With the spacecraft now expected to keep transmitting for ten or so more years, we’ll surely see both Voyagers reach true interstellar space before their power runs out. Then the loss of energy will take its toll. Somewhere around 2018 Voyager 1 will shut down its data tape recorder, just as Voyager 2 shuts down its gyros. As instruments go quiet, all power will be shunted to interstellar wind measurements and communications with the distant Earth. As we reach 2020, the few instruments still able to operate by sharing power will be unable to be supported. We’ll be left with only a tracking signal that can last perhaps as late as 2025.

But there is a way to keep the Voyagers alive, if not in equipment then as a part of our lore and our philosophy. They will take about 30,000 years to reach the outer edge of the Oort Cloud (the inner edge, according to current estimates, is maybe 300 years away). Add another 10,000 years and Voyager 1 passes some 100,000 AU past the red dwarf Gliese 445, which happens to be moving toward the Sun and will, by this remote date, be one of the closest stars to the Solar System. As to Voyager 2, it will pass 111,000 AU from Ross 248 in roughly the same time-frame, at which point the red dwarf will actually be the closest star to the Sun.

Carl Sagan and the team working on the Voyager Golden Record wondered whether something could be done about the fact that neither Voyager was headed for another Solar System. Is it possible that toward the end of the Voyagers’ active lifetimes (somewhere in the 2020s), we could set up a trajectory change that would eventually lead Voyager as close as possible to one of these stars? Enough hydrazine is available on each craft that, just before we lose radio contact with them forever, we could give them a final, tank-emptying burn. Tens of thousands of years later, the ancient craft, blind, mute but still more or less intact, would drift in the general vicinity of a star whose inhabitants, if any, might find them and wonder.

A trajectory change would increase only infinitesimally the faint chance that one of these spacecraft would someday be intercepted by another civilization, and neither could return data. But there is something grand in symbolic gestures, magic in the idea that these venerable machines might one day be warmed, however faintly, by the light of another sun. Our spacecraft are our emissaries and the manifestations of our dreams. How we conceive of them through the information they carry helps us gain perspective on ourselves, and shapes the context of our future explorations. Giving the Voyagers one last, hard shove toward a star would speak volumes about our values as a questioning species determined to confront the unknown.


C Read December 24, 2015 at 13:37

Wonderful article!

Alex Tolley December 24, 2015 at 14:10

The issue of energy is interesting. RTGs eventually run down and so have an inherently limited lifetime. But what if we equipped deep space probes with lightweight rectennas and beamed micowaves at them for power (rather than propulsion)? How far out in space and time could such probes operate for – enough to study the Oort and report back their findings?

I envision a gossamer thin, super lightweight, rectenna that can periodically receive power that is stored in a battery or super capacitor. Periodically, an Earth based beam is sent to the probe to power it up as needed – for continuous or periodic operation. The beam is directed to many probes serially to maintain its operation efficiently.

How feasible is this? How lightweight can the rectenna be (carbon nanotube or graphene covered in conductive metals)? Can it be shaped to do double duty as the communication dish? How much power is needed from Earth to power the probe out to various distances? Are microwaves better than lasers, or are there advantages for either based on distance?

We usually think of beamed power for propulsion, energy transmission from SPSs, and powering infrastructure facilities in space. But here is a possible niche that needs highly directed, low power to our future deep space probes pushing back at the boundaries of “dragons be here”.

Tracy Karin Prell December 24, 2015 at 15:20

What a wonderful thought provoking story! Thank you for sharing!

Michael December 24, 2015 at 16:32

Have a Merry Christmas Paul and to all C.D readers and commenters, wow, another year draws to a close but all is not lost we are a year closer to Star flight.

JMD December 24, 2015 at 16:57

I love that idea!!

Given where the two spacecraft will be then, do you know what star could each be aimed at??

Ashley Baldwin December 24, 2015 at 17:17

Deus ex Machina. Powerful stuff. Like the final Act idea of a trajectory change to take them into another system and give them a distant date with destiny . Sagan would approve . Comforting somehow rather than just cutting them adrift forever. Penelope awaits ?
Best to wait till hopefully an extended Gaia data set back to massively improve on the Hipparchus ( almost said Telemarchus !) positioning of these stars and pay them a compliment of accuracy with which they guided us through and to our first interstellar Odyssey.

Paul Gilster December 24, 2015 at 17:52

JMD writes:

Given where the two spacecraft will be then, do you know what star could each be aimed at??

JMD, I think the two stars mentioned in the essay — Gliese 445 and Ross 248 — are still the only options. It would be a question, though, of adjusting the trajectory to make the spacecraft come as close as possible to the two stars. Gliese 445 is a tough challenge and we probably can’t get closer than about a light year. Ross 248 may offer more interesting options, though I don’t know how close we might get. I’d love to see the analysis on this. In any case, the idea would be to make the spacecraft get as close as possible to each of the stars. And I’d love to see someone work up the numbers on Ross 248.

Andrew Palfreyman December 24, 2015 at 18:09

Off the top of my head I recall the Landis-proposed SunJammer mission capable of achieving a maximum sun-relative speed of around 100 Km/s at perigree. How that translates into interstellar remaining velocity after having crawled out of Sol’s gravity well isn’t known to me. At least the first part of the escape occurs under full sail, running before the light (a photonic sailing phrase I just coined).

And on a seasonal note, peace and goodwill to all mankind.

Coacervate December 24, 2015 at 20:56

We are having Christmas here today in NZ. Everyone is chirpy with various activities. It has become my habit to steal away for a few moments on this special day to check in with CD. As usual, I am rewarded. I’ve printed this off so I can present it after things settle down this evening. I just wanted to find some words to let you know, all of you who come here to opine and present so intelligently… Especially today’s essay. To give a new mission to Voyager. It is such a refreshing and uplifting idea that captures the imagination. Hey, I just found those words i was searching for.


Terry Moseley December 24, 2015 at 21:17

That trajectory change is worth doing, if only because it costs basically zero, but the potential benefit could be large!
However, by 40,000 years we will almost certainly have already sent probes to these and other nearby stars by having developed much faster propulsion systems. In 10,00 years, for example, we should have rockets which could do that journey in no more than hundreds of years, so by the time Voyager 1 arrives it would be obsolete.
It would be as if Columbus set out on his months-long voyage to the New World but after he had only been at sea for a week, we developed Concorde which made the journey in a few hours!
But there’s one other reason to do it – Who knows if our civilization will still exist in 10,000 years? Or even 1,000 years. This could be our only chance!

David December 24, 2015 at 22:03

Midwest us since 1859 . There are older but one makes its pottery in China. So even in the US. Also institutions like Harvard. What kind of propulsion is the Oort Cloud probe ? Maybe we should rally around that or maybe those student designs you covered earlier.

NS December 24, 2015 at 23:02

The examples given don’t represent long-term thinking. They were things that were of current use throughout their existence, and happen to have been useful for a long time. Many similar business enterprises no doubt went out of existence because they could not be continued or were no longer needed. Old buildings are destroyed to make way for new ones all the time.

It’s usefulness rather than functional longevity that will limit the lifespan of long-term probe missions. How can we know what the science of centuries or millennia from when the probes were launched will be interested in? Even today space probes that can still return data are shut down because they aren’t needed any longer, and that’s only over a time span of a few decades.

That said, I’m not against potentially long-term missions, just ones that will only be useful (if ever) in the long term. Any missions we launch should return useful data in the short to medium term (years/decades). If they turn out to be important for longer than that, our descendants can decide to let them continue.

Ashley Baldwin December 25, 2015 at 1:18

Should a “voyager” be the collective noun for a group or romantics ? A heart warming thought at Christmas. Which it is now in the UK . All the best to everyone and the seasons good will.

Frank Smith December 25, 2015 at 8:48

Too bad Voyager’s builders didn’t include even a small solar panel. It would be cool if Voyager could “wake up” if it passed close enough to a star to accumulate enough power to activate a radio beacon. Then maybe someone would notice it.

Greg Matloff December 25, 2015 at 9:20

Merry Christmas everyone

What a beautiful piece, Paul. I will miss Voyager 1/2 when the RTGs finally give out. But it would be nice if we could redirect for a close stellar flyby in the distant future!

Regards, GREG

Xynoplas December 25, 2015 at 15:29

On a related note, it looks like NASA will again have a supply of 238:

Coacervate December 25, 2015 at 15:29

@Frank Smith

Its a nice thought. Some reserve or option to self-start should something unexpected happens seems logical. What if ET shines a light while inspecting?, heh.

Similarly, wouldn’t it be great if Cassini had been designed with enough fuel to nudge into a trajectory back towards Earth? That way we could fly her through the mists of Enceladus a few more times and then fall back to rendevous with …hmmm I’m sure Elon would come up something. What is in that water??

Also, I hear that ESA and others are planning another Beagle type probe. Don’t really understand NASA’s decision to not look for life on Mars. i hope somebody finds the courage to risk failure (which btw, the Vikings were not!) and test for microbes on Mars.

Hiro December 25, 2015 at 15:47

@ Terry: If our technological civilization is still around in 2500 AD, I suspect that someone will do something similar to aerial refueling (spacial refueling?) for both Voyagers by replacing some degenerated Plutonium 238 with new high graded one.

I wonder how many years that it will take to place a space (neutrino) telescope orbiting Sol around 20 Au or 550 Au.

kamal ali December 25, 2015 at 22:45

Merry Christmas Paul & readers,

thank you for a wonderfully wistful and uplifting essay. I love the optimism – the best gift one can receive: it speaks to the spacefaring attitude, a bit of which we seem to have lost – but maybe just for a while. Yes, indeed, if there is hydrazine, lets use it as a final hurrah.
(Many articles in CD led me to believe that 0.1c was conceivable which would lead to a not-too-mind-boggling 42 year trip to Alpha centauri: In 2019, Voyager 1 will have been in flight 42 years! The number 42 seems prescient!)

James December 27, 2015 at 2:46

Fantastic article, thought provoking and inspiring, thanks!

Michael December 27, 2015 at 14:40

I suspect within 500 yr the pioneers and voyagers will be in the Smithsonian or Stellasonian back on Earth or the moon. We will be overtaking them with other spacecraft that it would be pointless letting them carry on or we could strap a much higher speed booster on to them and keep them going each time we catch up with them just to keep the meaning of these probes alive. One of each probe set could be put up for show with the other shot out faster.

I hope everyone had a Great festive period, I had a rotten cold but still a great one none the less. Roll on next year there is much to look forward to.

Hiro December 28, 2015 at 17:29

@ Michael: The Voyagers are used as some kind of temporal yardstick (~40000 years) to measure the life span of our civilization. I consider the Voyager program similar to running marathon, it’s more about the will (& fun?), the speed isn’t the most important factor here.

Mark December 28, 2015 at 23:18

Didn’t I read somewhere that one of these comes back to Earth in the 23rd century as V’GER, all souped up with alien AI & technology and ready (and able) to destroy the planet if we don’t input the right code? We should have implemented a self destruct instead of sending these toward a star system.

ljk December 29, 2015 at 11:14

Will humans ever build real starships, as in the kind that will not take tens of thousands of years to get from one sun to another:

ljk December 29, 2015 at 11:21

Mark said on December 28, 2015 at 23:18:

“Didn’t I read somewhere that one of these comes back to Earth in the 23rd century as V’GER, all souped up with alien AI & technology and ready (and able) to destroy the planet if we don’t input the right code? We should have implemented a self destruct instead of sending these toward a star system.”

That was Voyager 6 and it was never built in our reality, so we are safe.

For now.

Then again, if Voyager 1 or 2 do ever fall into a black hole, this might happen:

Astronist December 29, 2015 at 19:27

Sorry, Paul, I’m not impressed by the idea of redirecting the Voyagers to make a flyby of another star. If a civilisation exists or will one day exist at either of the stars you mention, then it will be vastly easier for it to find Earth and identify the presence of life here than to find the inert spacecraft.


Paul Gilster December 29, 2015 at 22:10

I think you miss the point, Stephen. It’s not about civilizations at the target stars. It’s about a symbolic act in recognition of a human future at an interstellar level. It’s much more about us — today — than about any civilization that might find the Voyagers later.

Mark Zambelli December 30, 2015 at 12:34

Yay… a follow-up from Aprils post.

Just to re-iterate, I personally think this is a cracking idea and would be a wonderful way of connecting all of current humanity to a ‘Big Picture’ idea and just as a statement will speak volumes about us; the chances of this statement being heard by any prospective ETIs is vanishingly small I know (and that’s irrelevant) but it will echo down through our future history, reminding our descendants of their ancestors values in this ever present Big Picture.

Personally I don’t think we’ll ever retrieve our Ambassadors to return to a museum, although this idea does show us just how iconic our early probes are to us. But will they still hold enough of a place in the hearts of our great-to-the-‘nth’-grandchildren? They’ll be the ones with the means by then hopefully but will our probes be important enough by then to track down? (remembering that once the carrier wave shuts down in the late ’20s we lose them and every decade hence our best guesstimates will become weaker and weaker). With the Douglas Adams quote of “Space is big… really, really big…”, how will we even locate them?

I see the messages the probes carry, along with the very probes themselves, as essentially ‘messages in a bottle’ that we flung off the beach to the vagaries of the sea for some of the most noble of reasons. After 40 yrs of watching them tumble in the breakers as they slowly recede we now have the chance to wade out a little to our waists and give two of these important bottles a little nudge in a better direction before they disappear from view forever, at the start of their immense journey.

I hope we do give the Voyagers a nudge (win-win with zero losses) and I quietly hope that the New Horizons team reserve enough hydrazine during the KBO flyby to enable them to do the same, if applicable, especially with the soon-to-be-uploaded Message in the data-banks.

Thanks to all of the CD posters here and a big thankyou to Paul for making CD the site it is.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, one and all!
Regards, Mark

ljk January 5, 2016 at 19:22

Two new articles on sending and preserving messages in space.

One aboard a rover to Luna:

The other on the New Horizons probe into the wider Milky Way galaxy:

Coacervate January 5, 2016 at 21:05

Big thinkers like Hawking, Paul Davies…minds of the highest caliber often warn against revealing our presence here on this island Earth for fear that space monsters might come here to serve Man (ala The Twilight Zone episode).

This gives me hope, inspite my nearly complete lack of understanding of relativity, the STC and black holes…Their arguments imply, at least to me, that even at the highest levels of knowledge the notion exists that interstellar travel is possible. So I conclude that there remains a slight gap in the physics…the widow is not completely closed…the door is still ajar.

Fortunately my education in biology and logic insulates me from silly notions of alien invasions seeking our minerals or emotions or a new home on the good Earth. In fact I think we can gauge our own progress towards interstellar travel by weighing our motives. Do we seek a new home in the sky, some fossil fuel, a leg up on our competitors OR do we seek knowledge? If it is the latter then, perhaps, we are well on our way to FTL. Note the positive turn I take there, heh.

ljk January 6, 2016 at 11:41

Coacervate said on January 5, 2016 at 21:05:

“I think we can gauge our own progress towards interstellar travel by weighing our motives. Do we seek a new home in the sky, some fossil fuel, a leg up on our competitors OR do we seek knowledge? If it is the latter then, perhaps, we are well on our way to FTL. Note the positive turn I take there, heh.”

Or why not just pure galactic conquest? If we are going to explore and settle the galaxy in person we might as well just call it what it is, expanding into new territory and having the natives either run away or become assimilated – or exterminate them in case they don’t get the hint. However a number of humans think we are the most advanced life form in the Milky Way if not the entire Universe so we may not have to worry about that aspect of expansion. Wheh!

Would Europe have settled the New World if the only goal was expanding human knowledge? Of course not. And if you think we went to the Moon with Apollo to understand lunar geology better, you are just adorable. So too with interstellar exploration and colonization: Science will be the cover story. Certainly the very expensive infrastructure to make starships of any sort possible won’t happen because someone just wanted to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and so forth. The Space Age was born on the back of the weapons of a world war, no matter how hard some people try to claim Robert Goddard was the father of modern rocketry.

Will advanced ETI have also similar motives? Will we meet kindly, altruistic scientists or expansion-minded types? Or something like Artilects that will consider us carbon units and therefore not true life forms? Those things tend to get swept under the rug in the shiny surface motivations for going into space.

Coacervate January 6, 2016 at 17:01

Wooden ships on the water ? History does not predict everything. What does your interpretation of history predict for our future?

I was trying to frame an argument that connects philosophical development with interstellar travel. I say any intelligent beings that develop the required technology will also advance to such a stage that notions of conquest give way to ethical and moral sophistication. I think you would agree that technological advancement creates moral dilemma. Four hundred years after new world explorers, we have come a little way. We don’t burn people for heresy anymore. We sterilise our landers (as best we can). We agree to certain principles designed to protect alien life we might contact even at the microbial level.

Moreover, I can not envision any society becoming so advanced as to solve the travel problem without subduing the evolutionary baggage that perverts our present day progress. Someday we will transcend our primitive obsessions with gods and magic. On that happy day new vistas of science and art will be clear. The things we value, the beings we become must meld to form a new life form that is at home in the coming era of trans-stellar exploration.

These changes are not options, they are required. I say that Homo should be viewed as a transition species that will ultimately take responsibility for its own development. In fact there is reason to believe that many spin-off life forms are likely. When you mix genetic manipulation with bionics it becomes apparent that no limits, save the ones we bring from the savannahs, apply.

ljk January 7, 2016 at 10:53

You assume alien mindsets – this includes our own descendants – will automatically follow some path of morality and ethics which mirror what we consider to be “good” and “right”, especially as they become more advanced technologically and biologically. I am far less certain, but note I am also not talking about the hoary old “aliens conquer Earth” story, either.

We are neither experienced enough or smart enough to fully know what a superior alien mind might want to do or could do. And even on our small scale, we have made progress overall despite the fact that many humans are still quite ignorant and warlike.

Have you read Solaris by Stanislaw Lem?

Coacervate January 7, 2016 at 15:26

I make no such assumptions. Rather I argue that ethical sophistication is a necessary condition allowing for the technological development of interstellar travel.

Do your recommend Solaris in the context of our discussion? Have not read it.

ljk January 7, 2016 at 19:04

Coacervate, yes I do recommend Solaris, along with most of the other works by Lem regarding aliens. This includes His Master’s Voice.

Two items I also recommend as part of our discussion. The first is an online article. The whole thing is worth reading, but this is the relevant part:–Alien_Contact–The_Fermi_Paradox–The_Killing_Star

And then there is this quote by Orson Welles:

ljk January 7, 2016 at 19:16

Of course they are fictional (what else can I do at the moment), but the Borg of Star Trek think they are being very ethical by “uplifting” other species through their assimilation process. Understandably most other species do not appreciate the gesture, to put it mildly.

And even “ethical” and “moral” advanced ETI might not be concerned about our welfare any more than you worry about the bacteria that live on your toilet when you decide it is time to clean the bowl, if they are that far in advance of us, to say nothing of being different in many ways. You are not being evil when you clean your toilet, you are just trying to remain sanitary.

Perhaps another example is a colony of ants at a human construction site. Ants are largely ignored and often not even recognized at such a place, and the construction workers are not actively thinking about conquering or destroying the insects. But if their building project is going to be right where the colony is, guess who is going to lose out?

Coacervate January 8, 2016 at 0:03

ljk, i do take your point. it is risky to think we can know the hearts, the capabilities or motives of our Earthly contemporaries, let alone advanced beings from outer space. However those are our cards, how shall we play them?

I have always been a risk taker. Sometimes I win, sometimes lose. Still kicking.

I am for taking the gamble. In fact I think we are safer at the hands of “them” than my lusty brothers and sisters here on Jasoom.

As for ethical behaviour facilitating technological advancement I wish to offer a present day example. I know a lot of USAmericans. My work takes me to NA frequently. I am amazed at the overwhelming proportion who think that the USA has solved its energy problems because of the advances in oil-from-shale technology.

Keep in mind that i’m speaking from my perspective in the south Pacific. My little country is helping even smaller nations cope with rising sea level and its knock on effects. Many people from Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, Fiji …it really is a lot of people, are feeling the effects of rising tides.

How is it possible that people in the USA, in this day and age of instant communication, are not aware or perhaps not believing that the burning of fossil fuels is directly connected to sea level change?

Upon analysis, there is no reason for us to conclude that the citizens, the corporations, the government of the USA have the moral and ethical stock, let alone the common sense to see that what is bad for the Pacific is bad for the USA. Or, more to the point, a big supply of oil is no reason to stop developing alternative energy resources. It is not a technological advance to suck more oil out of shale because it generates more ethical and moral issues than it solves. This is but one example of a situation that must be rectified before the USA can move forward. The USA seems to think that going backwards is going forwards.

So away we go. We see images of people pumping their vehicles full on cheap petrol. The man in the street is heard to say “Take that OPEC!”

And where will this shabby lack of ethical standard take them? Have they solved any problems with this new technology? Is the technology itself not fraught with a whole new set of problems? Is the new low price of oil going to improve their lives…No it won’t. It will exacerbate the already near-to-tipping point levels of CO2. It will induce selective amnesia around critical environmental lessons.

Speaking of which, I note with some irony that we have been betraying our presence here since the advent of the industrial revolution. The detectable increase in CO2 in our atmosphere is a sure giveaway. Like a bullhorn to those from whom many wish to hide! I wonder if they know about Trump? Wouldn’t that be enough, even if they were Vogons…surely they’d reroute to avoid contact!

I wish I could be more positive about humanity’s immediate future. As an observer of the human condition I cant see how we will avoid a “perfect storm” into chaos. I do hope that, after the next inevitable big war, we take some lessons and hammer out a new way of thinking that embraces the moral dilemma created by technological advancement.

I don’t claim to know how to achieve this sophisticated code of conduct to which I so easily make appeal. I do think it is prima facia that a change be made before we can think of picking up tools or advance towards the level of interstellar travelers.

This is not to indict the USA. We share the same biology. We are all capable of things that are wonderful and things that are monstrous. It is offered as a timely example to support my premise.

Sorry for the tome…Hopefully it contributes something to the discussion, which I think is probably just between you, ljk and me at this stage. BTW/ just got Solaris for kindle…$4.10. Now thats what I call technological advancement!

Thomas Goodey February 6, 2016 at 19:13

The suggestion is an interesting one, but surely in a few hundred years all these probes that have left the Solar System, now considered gone forever, will be brought back (perhaps by families on weekend Kuiper jaunts) and hung up where they ought to be preserved – in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Tiens van Greuning February 22, 2016 at 21:28

Forgive me for only now finding the time to read this, but reading through the comments, I find that I again have some things to say on the subject.

First off, the very idea that humankind might one day send something to go and retrieve the Voyagers and put them in a museum back on Earth where any number of bean counters, only concerned with the bottom line, can get their grubby paws on them, absolutely horrifies me.

On Earth they probably won’t last a century, but where they are headed, they may last millions, even billions of years.

If you want to put a Voyager in a museum, build an exact replica. If you want people to be able to look at the actual Voyagers, and you have the technology to do so, AT MOST you can send some sort of craft (preferably two) to go fly in formation with them, equipped with a good battery, a good camera which can periodically come out of hibernation and snap a picture of the Voyager, a good antenna with which to send the picture back to Earth, maybe doubling up as a means to accept a beam with which to remotely recharge the battery. Every effort must be made to ensure that this craft affect the Voyager as little as possible, leaving both the Voyager AND the trajectory it is travelling on, intact.

Secondly, for those who wonder why we must bother with these craft at all: While it would be nice if humankind at some stage developed spacecraft capable of screaming past the Voyagers, leaving them in their dust so to speak, colonizing the stars they are aimed at millennia before the Voyagers get there, this is far from certain.

At this stage there are no missions planned that will leave the Solar system. Just a few are planned for Jupiter, and though there is much talk about Europa and Enceladus, nothing is definite.

While the Elon Musks of this world may do everything in their power to get human presence off the Earth and into space, anything can happen. Elon Musk can die of a stroke tomorrow, and an accident on the ISS claiming the lives of 6 astronauts can happen any time. If something like that were to happen, this outer space idea might lose enough of its luster that humanity will eventually upload into the singularity and retreat into its ever shrinking virtual world, never to send anything into the great beyond ever again.

These two craft might, in a few million years, be the only evidence that humanity existed at all.

The third thing I want to say, regards my personal reasons for wanting to give these craft a last hurrah.

I love old machinery. watching an old steam locomotive go past with open kettles never gets old.

Also, my family’s daily transport consists of a 43 year old W115 Mercedes 240D, and a 44 year old W108 Mercedes 280SE. Both these cars are older than me, and at their age are as reliable and economical to run as any modern vehicle. On top of that, little beats the feeling of driving them. I always look at my wife driving away in the 280SE, marveling at that piece of German excellence, thinking look at her go.

I also love to look at the stars each night, tracking the planets as they make their way across the sky. But most of all, I love to look at things like the ISS and Hubble when they fly over my home. I would watch the ISS until it disappears far in the distance, thinking look at it go, even though it is in fact going nowhere.

The Voyagers, on the other hand, are actually going SOMEWHERE. I also like from time to time, to check in on’s page to see again where and how far the Pioneers, the Voyagers and New Horizons are. Again, look at them go :)

But even though the Pioneers may be our first interstellar craft in the sense that they were the first to be launched with enough oomph to actually leave the Sun’s gravity well, the Voyagers were the first to be actually AIMED at something outside our Solar system!

Now comes the possibility to burn some hydrazine, and any romantic with any sense of history at all can’t help but get excited about the possibilities. Of course the amount of fuel left is probably not enough to change the trajectory by much, but still…

Reading the comments, I see most are for the idea of giving these craft a “last hurrah”, to try and get them closer to the stars they are aimed at, but also, just as a sort of send-off, like a big old Viking funeral.

And it WOULD be nice to do both of these. In the first instance, to let the rays of another Sun warm these craft again, and in the second, a fitting last act of defiance for these magnificent little craft that could. I don’t know if it would be possible, but we may even train some big IR telescope on them while they are doing their last burn, and even if we get just one little pixel to show our descendants there, see that? that’s Voyager doing her last burn, that will really be something.

But to get at the point I really want to make, what if we could do MORE?

I mean, both Gliese 445 and Ross 248 are approaching us at considerable speed, and even if we empty both tanks to try and get closer, both will still be roaring past, oblivious to these craft, and then be gone forever. It is rather like cheering on a little to puppy to run a bit faster to try and catch that big old truck roaring past on the highway.

A grand gesture and all that, but in the end, still rather pointless.

What I would really like, is if someone could try and look BEYOND Gliese 445 and Ross 248. I see for instance, Wikipedia states that 296000 years from now Voyager 2 will pass within 4.3 light years of Sirius.

Is it possible for us to look at how much, if any, the gravity of Gliese 445 and Ross 248 will alter the trajectory of these craft? Is it possible to identify any other stars the Voyagers will pass by in the next several hundred thousand years?

Is it possible to try and use these fly-by’s to try and aim one of these craft a bit closer to a star which will NOT be screaming past them, maybe a star moving slow enough that it can actually capture the craft, even if it is a million years or more into the future?

The reason I’m asking this is, if we do identify such a star, we might even find it necessary to turn the Voyager around and do a burn to brake it, instead of accelerating it, in order to aim it more precisely at such a star.

If our aim is to leave some sort of legacy behind, something which someone might some day encounter and wonder where it came from, wouldn’t the chances of that vastly improve if it was actually in orbit, even a very wide orbit, around a star, instead of just adrift in interstellar space?

Now that would REALLY be something, if one or both of these craft can be not merely aimed at something outside our Solar system, but aimed at getting into orbit around something outside our Solar system.

Failing that, we can probably even try to look at using the fly-by’s of Gliese 445 and Ross 248 to try and aim our craft for a closer fly-by to the next star passing it, to try and get a better gravity assist to boost its speed. That would be an even better last hurrah to know we did that, than just getting it a closer fly-by 40k years from now and then nothing.

Thomas Goodey February 23, 2016 at 3:55

“…a museum back on Earth where any number of bean counters, only concerned with the bottom line, can get their grubby paws on them…”

I absolutely disagree. That is not the purpose of any museum, and it is not the purpose of the Smithsonian.

Why should those probes be left abandoned in the dark spaces between the stars, never again (at least for thousands of centuries) to be seen by any living being? Why should their trajectories be left “intact”? They won’t ever do any good to anybody on those trajectories!

“… the Voyagers were the first to be actually AIMED at something outside our Solar system…”

I don’t think so. I think the Voyagers were aimed at the outer planets of our Solar system.

As for the idea that one or the other Voyager could somehow get into orbit around another star, that’s dynamically impossible.

Tiens van Greuning February 23, 2016 at 18:24

Thomas I wholeheartedly agree that what I said is not the purpose of any museum, but it is going to happen eventually. There will at some stage be more interesting items to put on display and they will go into storage and be forgotten, or sold off to a private collector, and a generation or two or three later. In space, at least, they will be preserved for a very very long time, they may even still be intact when the red giant sun swallows the Earth one day.

Anyway, moot point, no museum will spend the preposterous amount of money and decades of time to go and retrieve them. If any future museum ever has the funds to do that we should be so lucky, because that would mean enormous amounts of money will be available for all kinds of space exploration.

Then, of course they were aimed at tbe outer planets, but are they traveling in the direction of these two stars by accident or were the gravity assist of their respective last fly-by’s used to change their courses in the direction of these particular stars wich would both in 40k years from now happen to be much closer to us than Proxima Centauri is now?

It seems to me to be too good to be pure coincidence, but I may be wrong. It would certainly help if we had a good reference.

Lastly, how do you know this is impossible? Have you checked the proper motions of all the stars these craft may pass by in the next million years or more and did you do the math? Or can you quote a reference of someone who did?

At some point, if not in the next million years, then in the next ten or hundred million years, one or both of these craft must pass by a star moving slowly relative to the craft. It would just be great if someone could at least check if a small nudge now might not just do the trick, if not to put it in orbit then at least to get a speed boost from it.

Thomas Goodey February 24, 2016 at 10:08

But what’s the point of leaving the Voyagers out there in the dark forever? It would be completely meaningless, if there is a realistic alternative. If they can be brought back for the amusement and edification of the public, obviously that would be preferable. And if in the end they are sold to private collectors, what problem do you have with that?

Obviously the cost of bringing them back at present is prohibitive, but things may change.

Yes, of course the Voyagers are going in the directions they are going, by accident; or rather, the trajectories they were set on in order to go close past the planets they were aimed to go close past, just happen to go in those directions. Actually, in each case, there was no alternative.

Neither Voyager has any chance whatsoever of going into orbit around any star in the future (absent an extremely improbably three-body coincidence), because that would require a lot of delta-V, and they don’t have any means to provide that.

Tiens van Greuning February 24, 2016 at 13:48

Let’s agree to disagree on al 3 points, Thomas. On the last 2 I’d really like to see something peer-reviewed which I can read.

On the first, the point is that they will last. And maybe one day someone, who might be descended from us or not, will notice one of them and wonder where they came from. And because to this entity they will be proof that there is or was a technological race in the galaxy that had to have made this craft, maybe they will calculate its age by the amount of pock marks on the surface, and maybe they will try to calculate its trajectory to see where it came from, and find what’s left of us. Here on Earth, they will maybe entertain or at least amuse a few people for some decades or even centuries. I’d really be surprised if they will still be intact a thousand years from now.

If you want them retrieved, build a ship and go get them. Just be sure to take a telescope and some scientific instruments along, and leave them there so that we at least get some knowledge out of the deal.

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