Voyager 2 received commands in early November to switch to the backup set of thrusters that control the roll of the spacecraft. I keep close tabs on the Voyagers because, still operational, they constitute our first interstellar mission, headed beyond the heliosphere and still returning data. Launched in 1977, they’re an obvious example of long-term survival in space, an issue that will become increasingly visible as we plan for longer and deeper missions beyond our Solar System. We got word on November 5 that Voyager 2 has accepted the new commands.
Let’s talk about this first in terms of engineering. Behind the switch is the need to reduce operating power, for using the backup thruster pair that controls roll motion will let engineers turn off the heater that warms the fuel line to the primary thruster, saving about 12 watts of power. With Voyager 2’s power supply providing about 270 watts, finding savings like this can help the spacecraft remain operational. It’s remarkable to consider that the thrusters involved here have fired more than 318,000 times, while the backup pair has not yet been used in flight. Voyager 1 made a similar change in 2004 and is now using all three sets of its backup thrusters.
Sometimes when I read the relatively dry language of the status reports on Voyager my thoughts turn to ancient journeys that once defined out thinking. Pushing deep into the unknown evokes Homer to me, the journey of Odysseus and his crew on a ten year attempt to find their way home while running into all manner of mysteries, but of course there are mythic links to man’s innate urge to explore in many other cultures. Just making such connections seems like a romantic view of hard science, but why not? I just read Athena Andreadis’ short interview in SF Signal in which she talks about the uses of intuition in science, coupled with a ‘type of rigor and dedication usually associated with monastic orders.’ She goes on to liken scientists to wizards and ‘astrogators who never sleep,’ a direct nod to speculative fiction and its influence.
Andreadis knows all about hard science, of course. She’s a researcher in molecular neurobiology as well as being a cross-genre writer of considerable talent. We’re just coming off the Thanksgiving holiday here in the States and with the weekend approaching, I’m in a reflective mood anyway, so what Athena says about science has a fine resonance for me this morning, wrapping itself around the Voyager story and its interplay with the human need for journeying. Later in the interview, Charles Tan asked Andreadis whether the exploration of space was essential to the human future. The answer is a qualified yes, but one that takes into account our frequent over-estimation of our own destiny and the things we are capable of:
Space is inherently hostile to humans. People argue that humans have managed to overrun Earth and hence we can do the same beyond Earth, given advanced enough technology. However, we evolved here and even now, despite our technology, we are helpless before major planetary upheavals. The concept of going beyond our planet has a powerful hold on our imagination, for a good reason: we have a deep-rooted urge to explore, which is both a blessing and a curse. The challenges of crewed space expeditions are mind-boggling.
How true, and how often understated! But Andreadis believes in the attempt as part of that same urge for exploration that has seen ships embarking for ports unknown throughout our history:
Even so, I think it is indeed essential that we take to space at some point. Not for fortune or glory, but because we yearn for the next horizon. At the same time, we need to be deeply aware that we can never “conquer” space. The self-serving inanities of the Strong Anthropic Principle aside, triumphalism will avail us naught in a universe that is supremely indifferent to us and our aspirations.
In the poem ‘Mid-Journey,’ Andreadis writes in a way that calls up Homeric venturing and echoes (for me at least) Tennyson’s own Homeric reflections on getting older in ‘Ulysses’:
How plucked and gutted is our bright youth!
The gates of heaven stood open back then.
Now, fatigue and demons track our trail.
Within us and behind us, blood and darkness
And for those who loved us, ruins and flames.
Warmth and comfort are yokes for us.
We chose thorns, shoals and starlight.
We vowed ourselves irrevocably to battle.
We will die exiles, mercenaries to strangers,
Having seen and dreamed imperishable beauty.
You can hear the poem read aloud here. Stephen Pyne works nicely with the mythic nature of our spacecraft in his Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery (Viking, 2010), mindful of the need to relate what we do with science to the great themes of exploration as they have played themselves out in fact and in myth throughout history. We do well to remind ourselves, as Athena does, of both the rigor of science and the informed intuition that breeds the magic of discovery. I think about both, and about long voyages on wine-dark seas, when I imagine our Voyagers, still alive, being prepared for still deeper wanderings.
Comments on this entry are closed.
Rob Henry: “If they speak of “our” planet …” and “Just asking for half …”
The first — and really difficult and hard — problem would be to understand what they say.
“have a sense … feel … are worthy … considered …”
These are even more complex — and more difficult — concepts.
“The fact that they are capable of interstellar travel implies …”
I’m afraid being capable of interstellar travel does not imply what you (and others) hope for. It could very well be, that those aliens are only able to travel over the vast and dangerous distance of space by exploiting their resources nearly completely, and when they arrive here they need our help just to survive. Remember, several of the “great” explorers in human history experienced the same problem, many of them nearly died, and many of them indeed died. And if I think of the concept of worldships promoted on the Centauri Dreams website and elsewhere, when I imagine them arriving at a distant planet, for me these worldships and their inhabitants do not look like being able to do great things, just *because* they are capable of interstellar travel.
“Their view as expert outsiders on human psychology …”
Sorry to say, but the things you expect are getting more and more difficult, if not impossible. Evolution gave homo sapiens a training for drawing conclusions from the external behavior of a person, observed in a social relationsship, to the internal state of the person’s mind, including the psyche. Extraterrestrians will not have these preconditions: evolution together with us, a social relationship with us, being able to observe and interpret behavior (contrasted to just seeing movements of our bodies and their parts).
By the way, the preconditions mentioned above (and others, of course) enable us to understand what other people say. If we want to communicate with extraterrestrian people, we and they have to create something equivalent. Ask Europeans and Americans who tried to learn a language from east asia, and do real conversation!
“The only bad news that I can see …”
Well, I think, there are really a lot of bad news to see — sorry.
Ljk, first you challenge the robustness of my conclusions then, in your next post you give what should be MY rebuttal. Perhaps you subsequently realised that the most likely alternative is that they did not care anything for us, allowing us to go on as before conjoined with the everlasting possibility that their next fad might deprive us of the necessities of life. Also, does it really matter in the greater scheme of things how annoyed I would be at having to relocate – perhaps you could bake me a cake.
Duncan Ivry, all you say is true, subtle and often pertinent, but it is my belief that it does not alter my conclusion one whit.
To make demands, they would learn our language, which I venture they could easily learn very easily.
It is just possible that may need our help, but we would be unwise to use this mitigate their demands. Much better would be to use any goodwill to request that which does not clash with their needs.
Their mastery of interstellar travel makes certain things likely – though it does not prove them.
I can also see that since they lack prior knowledge of human traits, than could not so easily exploit its weaknesses, and as such agreements are unlikely to be distorted by the personal chemistry of the negotiants. Agreement will thus be based on more substance and less style. Their real advantage is not because they have and inbuilt ability to second guess our reactions, but because they could more easily see the grossly illogical nature of much of it.
Oh ljk, I almost missed it. You also asked if such visiting ETI’s would have the “means to enforce their desires better than anything we possess at the moment”. Yes, Those fiends could threaten to leave us to our own devises.
I like the poem, too.
It should not be too terribly surprising that many aspects of our society have not changed since Roman and Medieval times – after all, we are social animals designed by evolution like wolves, elephants, and cetaceans to obey a few designated leaders. A few thousand years is little time for any real changes when it comes to the biology of large mammals.
This is why even sophisticated nations like Great Britain and its wider United Kingdom still have a monarchy whose often self-selected and elite members claim their rule by “divine” right. I keep thinking of the scene in the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur comes across the “bloody peasant” who openly mocks the story of how Arthur became ruler of all Britain: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”
This is also why “experiments” in social order like communism ultimately fail and cost many millions of lives in the process, because those who set up such societies continue to ignore the plain fact that we are not at all far off from our basic animal natures, with often disastrous results. True human nature is something that really needs to be considered seriously when all these plans of an interstellar worldship are being made. But where are the biologists, the sociologists, and the poets?
Which leads me to my next beef: I am quite frankly appalled and ashamed at the actions of some in this thread. The whole point of the original article was to add a bit of humanity and poetry regarding the grand and even romantic nature of what will probably be the ultimate adventure for our species, traveling throughout our galaxy and beyond.
While I am not a big poetry fan, I did find that particular poem rather nice and appropriate for this piece. I also find it very important that both the “hard” and “soft” sides of the equation called interstellar exploration receive their appropriate due, especially if we do decide to send humans along on these journeys and certainly if we want the support of the general public, who need to see and understand this venture as more than just science fiction.
Instead, what has been accomplished is keeping this site the domain of white male technonerds and some rather rude behavior in general, the latter of which at least is not normally a part of Centauri Dreams. I am also wondering if there is some trolling going on as well.
It would be a shame if the comments sections had to be shut down here, because the regular members in good standing often do provide some excellent insight and information to enhance the original articles. How ironic that the very human nature which a few tried to dismiss here instead came out in full force. We won’t be able to escape it aboard a starship, either.
I feel further vindicated that our first encounters with an ETI will be ones not of an organic nature, or certainly not by the equivalent of some third order level chimpanzees.
Rob Henry – You seem so very optimistic about the possibility of an ETI setting up permanent camp on our pale blue dot, along with some rather strange “logic” that readily dismisses any concepts of potential danger or worse to our species and the rest of Earth.
Is something going on out in the galaxy that you are privy to? Perhaps we have here an advance scout/representative of some galactic hegemony or a desperate colony ship whose orders are to psychologically “soften up” the natives prior to the Big Move. They would rather not use force because it is both messy and resource-intensive, but it will be considered if the natives do not cooperate properly such as by questioning inconsistent ideas.
Just remember, even if your weaponry is superior to our puny tanks and missiles, we do have plenty of germs available, which our primitive tribal Deity in His Wisdom has kept around here for ages. I have been told they are quite good at thwarting alien invaders, even the ones with tripods, heat rays, and poison gas.
Ljk, you realise and acknowledge the distress that I would undergo if my family, friends and self are forced to relocate, yet you remain mute as to whether you would bake me a cake. What sort of person are you!
Equally distressing is that you interpret that Monty Python (blessed be its name) sketch to show that head of state is better selected by popular support. Surely its real point is that our strange want of being ruled by a single entity leads to either a mystic leadership, or a divisive power struggle. I don’t wish to rub it in, but, you Americans just might have made the worst mistake in your history by dumping George.
Your talk of how our desperation for alternatives has lead to such disasters as was Communism should remind us all how much we need an alien perspective. If our luck is good, our salvation may come from the heavens in a few millions years, but we are unwise to write-off closer help. You mention cetaceans, and these are hard to study with their strange vocalization, yet we can be reasonably certain that none that have ever lived in captivity has intelligence comparable to ours. We can be less certain of other larger species, and if one of these proves sentient, my money would be on the sperm whale.
Wouldn’t it be a surprise if, when mankind first leaves Sol, it does so not because of its own abilities, but because of a partnership that would enable us to ameliorate our mutual faults. That really would change everything!
PS I’m glad you mention trolling. Note that trolling can only work to entertain the troll because of illogical human tendencies that we find hard to identify and arrest before any damage is done. Also note that a corollary of this is that their must be a preexisting tendency that would allow us to, on occasion, spontaneously inflict the damage all by ourselves. I’m sorry but I don’t think we can put the blame to alien cause.
(And that’s my favorite quote from Holy Grail….best political analysis I’ve ever read!)
It IS a bit depressing to have experienced the almost unified rejection of a real debate about the ideologic worldwiew , who now rules the world of modern SF and general space enthusiasm .
A good debate culture has the funktion of letting oposing wiews fight it out inside a certain set of rules , the most important of which is to accept the moral right of your opponent to have a wiew which might be completly disgusting , seen from our own point of wiew.
But why would this have anything to do with the comments section of “Centauri Dreams” , why would a comments section have to be a debate forum ? The answer to this question lies in the nature of the alternative. If a comments section does NOT aspire to conform to some of the rules of classical debate , then it will , before or later, automaticly become dominated by a single worldwiew who wil have the power to define anthing else as BAD , and so become a closed comunity recruiting only from an unnecesarily limited section of potential participants.
As said before , I would have prefared an non-political environment. This posibility does not exist any more , and so it becomes necesary to establish a debate culture which would allow opposing wiews to be expressed whithout this proces degenerating into a mudslinging popularity contest, or worse.
I think what is being missed here in the “Give up half the Earth” debate is that the aliens coming on the used up remains of a starship are going to be few and out of resources. Even if they had the power to demand “half of Earth”, why would they? All they would need would be space for one settlement, a village, if you will. Once settled, there would be plenty of time to think about staying or leaving.
Surely it would be in the interest of the arrivals not to tick off their prospective hosts by outlandish demands, and it would be in our interest to host and learn about them before we attack and annihilate them (provided we have that power). After reflection, we might even come to the conclusion that that would be a bad idea.
Rob Henry said on December 2, 2011 at 23:22:
“Ljk, you realise and acknowledge the distress that I would undergo if my family, friends and self are forced to relocate, yet you remain mute as to whether you would bake me a cake. What sort of person are you!”
The kind that does not bake cakes very often. :^) But I will gladly buy one for you and your family.
Rob Henry said:
“Equally distressing is that you interpret that Monty Python (blessed be its name) sketch to show that head of state is better selected by popular support. Surely its real point is that our strange want of being ruled by a single entity leads to either a mystic leadership, or a divisive power struggle. I don’t wish to rub it in, but, you Americans just might have made the worst mistake in your history by dumping George.”
A few years ago I would have disagreed with you, but after seeing the Republican candidates for President in 2012, I am not so sure any more. This democracy thing by the people for the people may be overrated considering what we are getting from it to lead us.
Rob Henry said:
“Your talk of how our desperation for alternatives has lead to such disasters as was Communism should remind us all how much we need an alien perspective. If our luck is good, our salvation may come from the heavens in a few millions years, but we are unwise to write-off closer help. You mention cetaceans, and these are hard to study with their strange vocalization, yet we can be reasonably certain that none that have ever lived in captivity has intelligence comparable to ours. We can be less certain of other larger species, and if one of these proves sentient, my money would be on the sperm whale.”
While I am iffy for numerous reasons about getting or wanting “help” from an ETI, I do agree that even just knowing about them because they are a truly different intelligence could teach us much. Of course we may have to accept that if they are like cetaceans or Solaris, we may not learn much – though for now just knowing there is life out there would be key.
Rob Henry said:
“Wouldn’t it be a surprise if, when mankind first leaves Sol, it does so not because of its own abilities, but because of a partnership that would enable us to ameliorate our mutual faults. That really would change everything!”
If humans ever do leave the Sol system in person, my money is on not the noble astronaut types but the socially oppressed, be they religious types, political dissidents, or even criminals of a sort. That’s how America and Australia got their current residents.
Eniac, it may be that the ETI colonizers might be weak in certain aspects, but they will have the literal high ground. They could still attach rocket motors to a few NEOs and use them to threaten for demands or not even bother to give us a warning.
Then again, since they may also have access to all those space rocks and ice balls (comets), Earth may not be of as much interest to them as we assume. They could also dominate all the Sol system and just leave us with Earth, which would put us in a spot when our resources start to run out.
“I think what is being missed here in the “Give up half the Earth” debate is that the aliens coming on the used up remains of a starship are going to be few and out of resources. Even if they had the power to demand “half of Earth”, why would they?”
To me this questions has two separate aspects each of which has great importance.
Humans tend to think in human ways. An ETI arriving here and stating “we have come trillions of miles just to help you” would just feel so disingenuous to most of us as to think the worst of them. Other than the late Sagan and our ljk, such a statement would have most of us thinking, even if fleetingly, “I wonder if we can exterminate them before it is too late”. If they make what seems like fair but nontrivial demands on us, then immediately we would relax at in that feeling that we know the extent of our plight. All this explains our reluctance to see Eniacs seemingly obvious question.
There are many reasons they might want half our planet. Actually just think of the possibility I mentioned earlier of us finding that sperm whales were sentient and you may well contemplate that their different environment would make us happy to do this favour for them in return for their granting us a view of their unique perspective even though we would have done all the hard work of raising them to civilised status. ETI’s might just want to ingrain in us the concept of equality in partnership, in which case they might not require anyone to actually move out from the half controlled by them. Alternative they might be angry at travelling so far to a once beautifully diverse planet that has now become a patchwork quilt of agricultural monocultures. If they want to relocate us from their half it will not be because they need that land for their personal use. Their reasons might even be incomprehensible to us.
Ole Burde: “it becomes necesary to establish a debate culture”
As far as I can see — and have seen for several years now — a debate culture is already established here.
“… which would allow opposing wiews to be expressed”
This is already the case, I think.
“… whithout this proces degenerating into a mudslinging popularity contest, or worse.”
Don’t get it wrong, please, if I say it just like this: “degenerating”, “mudslinging”, etc. would be a description far from reality.
Ljk, the nature of interstellar travel dictates that only those with access to wealth that is equivalent to their own weight in energy would make such a journey. I am not quite as certain as you that that would result in traditional patterns of the earlier stages of colonisation being repeated.
I also must apolligise that I put you in the same dangerously optimistic camp as Sagan. From a latter comment I now realise that you have a more realistic grounding. Thanks also for the cake offer, but if your baking skills are typical for your nation it sounds as if we would all be better off if that ETI asks for the lesser half of the world (ie the half that does not include New Zealand) and, given the circumstances, we must remember to advise them so immediately upon contact.
Duncan Ivry, I think that if you take Ole Burde description as meaning to apply to almost every site, then it is good. Centauri Dreams is highly unusual in that virtually all criticism has constructive purpose and as such its proffering is often a mark of respect. To me Ole’s concern probably springs from experience at other sites, the like of which this comments section only fleeting and slightly slipped down the path of. If he has confused the culture here with that elsewhere, he will soon realise his error without need of prompting.
Rob Henry said on December 4, 2011 at 18:15:
“Ljk, the nature of interstellar travel dictates that only those with access to wealth that is equivalent to their own weight in energy would make such a journey. I am not quite as certain as you that that would result in traditional patterns of the earlier stages of colonisation being repeated.”
I agree with you about the need for wealth for star travel and galactic colonization, but the reason I bring up more traditional reasons for people leaving the Sol system is that my youthful, innocent days of thinking that nations and other organizations conduct major undertakings strictly for altruistic, purely scientific reasons are over.
As a prime example, the United States put humans on the Moon four decades ago primarily to show up their chief global rival, the Soviet Union. Science was a backseat rider on Apollo even in the mindset of a number of NASA engineers, who were more interested in testing their new toys than bringing back rocks. Many of the Apollo astronauts participated because it was a chance to boost their careers and drive the ultimate flying machines of the era, despite the numerous claims of exploring strange new worlds for the peace and knowledge of all mankind. This is why a professional geologist did not go to the Moon until the very last Apollo mission, and even then there were those in the astronaut corps and elsewhere who protested Joe Engle losing his seat on Apollo 17 to Harrison Schmitt.
If NASA and the government were truly interested in establishing a permanent human presence in space and exploring the Final Frontier for science, we would have carried on the Apollo legacy and had colonies on the Moon and Mars by now and a real space station in Earth orbit that serves as a real port for missions to other worlds and conducts serious multidisciplinary science. Instead we have a space station which most of the general public has no idea what goes on there (and one that the astronauts and cosmonauts seem to spend most of their time maintaining), not a single human on the Moon since 1972, and promises of humans on Mars sometime in the 2040s – maybe. Oh yes, NASA is supposed to start sending humans to planetoids in 2025, but just a few years back they also promised to set up the first lunar colony by the same time, and that all fell through. This is because science is never enough of a motive for large-scale space exploration.
So when it comes to humans venturing to other star systems, I see little reason to think differently in this regard. Machines will be much more efficient conducting interstellar exploration, so to have a starship with a human crew onboard will require other motivations than science. Thus my comments that they will likely be part of some religious or political affiliation with a strong desire to escape the control of Earth and the Sol system. Either this or a combined goal of wanting to establish a new and presumably untouched galactic territory to start a new life and make new worlds their own.
I could be wrong, but I think it will take something drastic to change current human behavior, and in such a case the result might be either no more humanity or a species so changed from what are now that they are no longer human, thus rendering the whole point moot.
I know to many of us space is “sacred” and the methods to attain it appear different and more complicated than in earlier eras when all one needed was a big wooden boat, but basic human nature and needs have not changed and do not change, even in the face of the vast Cosmos. Otherwise our first rockets into the void would have been made by and for scientists, rather than as the result of military ambitions: The V-2, Atlas, Redstone, Titan, etc.
Ljk, it is easy to put a selection of facts together to get a distorted view. Before I accused you of optimism, and yet for you view of Apollo I must stand you on charges for the opposite indiscretion (don‘t worry you have many co-defendants). Here’s my summery of the reality.
After Sputnik a wave of approval for spread across the Soviet Union for their hitherto reviled regime. A similar wave of admiration for Soviet technology spread across the free world and the idea that it had potential to generate positive outcomes gained traction. This could not have gone unnoticed in the United States, which was the country with the highest potential to follow this lead.
It is true that they were spurred on by the trauma of the Cuban missile crisis and the JFK assignation, but we can also read this as a want to replace a depressing recent past with a glimpse of a glorious future. Apollo gave this, and so I put it to you that the positive impetus outweighed the negative even though it was driven by politics above science. I suspect that it is that latter reality that has lead to overstatement of the negative aspects of Apollo in some scientific minded quarters.
A bit late… Stephen, if you read this… I have set up a web site where, if you like, we can have a civil discussion of technical issues. I suggest we start with Tom Murphy’s post (a link is provided at the blog):
Others are welcome, but keep in mind I will expect a high degree of civility, much higher than found in this thread, and I will not hesitate to delete uncivil comments. If you have trouble knowing what a civil comment is, or you believe that you yourself have never been uncivil on the internet…don’t bother to drop by.
In general a positive “atmosphere” does exist here , but as the rescent examples show , this is only true as long as noboddy kicks any of the holy cows in their behinds . In a real debate you have automaticly LOST when you start acusing the opponent of whatever components of badnes , instead of trying to refute his ideas and arguments . This is not yet a generaly accepted rule here . If you express an opinion outside the “moral” aspectes of consensus , nobody exept ritghteous mudslingers will have too much to say about it.
You might say that the ” atmosphere” existing now is emotionaly based : if you say something obviously BAD , dont be surprised if everyboddy gets angry with you !
The posting policy here is clearly stated, and includes this: “Comments must be directly related to the post in question, must use appropriate language and must not be abusive to others. ”
Some of the comments in the thread above crossed this line, largely because I have been too busy to moderate the thread as tightly as I normally do. The policy still holds, however, and those who do move into the area of personal attacks are not going to have their comment published in the future, on this or any other thread.
Thank you for this captivating article!
I have a question however: where can I find the Voyager’s reports?
I would like to touch the edge of something beautiful, eventhough it is just reading about Voyager’s rolls!
Florian, check the Voyager Interstellar Mission page:
This links to mission reports, etc. I’m glad to see your enthusiasm — it sounds like you love this stuff as much as I do!
Hello Paul and thank you for your answer!
Yes indeed, I am quite enthusiastic! I have always had a singular fascination for the Voyager probes. I don’t know why but these two vintage radios speeding through the void and still gently sending informations, are like our best friends. “Look where we’ve gone, how far we’ve reached and how well we work” do they seem to say.
The Voyagers are, in my opinion, interesting objects that we should never neglect or forget, because they are an extension of who we are, a prolongation of our will to explore and discover new places. Can one dream of a more motivating exploration? I know not, but I am certain I would love to speed along the Voyagers and “see” what they are given to see.
Oh well I am getting lyrical here, but it is just something I like! A friend of mine suggested I check out your blog because, as he said “You might find very interesting things.” Not only did I find “very interesting things”, but also splendid and complex ideas for my mind to consider.
Thank you again and, please do forgive my English, but I’m French. Writting in an elaborate AND articulate manner in English still is troublesome sometimes, for me!
Florian, you are more than welcome here — thank you for joining us. Your English is just fine, and considerably better than my French, as I learned the last time I was in Paris!
Timothy Ferris on Voyagers’ Never-Ending Journey
With the spacecraft poised to leave our solar system, the writer who helped compile the time capsules they carry reflects on our deepest foray into outer space
By Timothy Ferris
Smithsonian magazine, May 2012
Exploration is one thing, science another—but they’ve come together rather nicely in the Voyager mission to the outer planets, outbound for the past 35 years yet still making discoveries.
The twin Voyager probes are currently poised on the brink of interstellar space. Both are immersed in the foamy walls of the transparent “heliospheric bubble,” where the solar wind, consisting of particles blown off the Sun, stalls against the stellar winds that permeate the rest of the galaxy.
Astronomers don’t know how thick the bubble walls are—that’s for the Voyagers to ascertain—but they expect the probes to burst free and begin reporting from the great beyond within the next three years. This final phase of the probes’ scientific mission should last until around 2020 to 2025, when their plutonium power sources will falter and their radios fall silent.
Thereafter the Voyagers will wander forever among the stars, mute as ghost ships but with stories to tell. Each carries a time capsule, the “Golden Record,” containing information about where, when and by what sort of species they were dispatched. Whether they will ever be found, or by whom, is utterly unknown. In that sense, the probes’ exploratory mission is just beginning.
Having played an incidental role in the mission, as producer of the Golden Record, I attended the first launch, on August 20, 1977—Carl Sagan embracing me and shouting, “We did it!” over the rolling thunder of the Titan-Centaur rocket as it climbed into a blue Florida sky atop a roiling pillar of smoke—and was among the hundreds of journalists who showed up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) outside Los Angeles each time the probes swept by another planet. These “encounters,” as they were called, resembled school reunions, where those of us drawn together by passion or profession witnessed one another’s journeys from young upstarts to senior citizens.
Recently I caught up with a stalwart regular, Edward Stone, Voyager’s first and only mission scientist. Bright-eyed, mantis-thin and famously unflappable, Ed is now in his late 70s. He continues to work enthusiastically on Voyager plus three other NASA missions—including the upcoming Solar Probe Plus, designed to boldly fly a mere four million miles above the Sun’s blazing surface.
“One has to remember that when the Voyagers were launched,” Ed recalled, “the space age was only 20 years old. There was no way to know how long these things would work.” The space agency launched two probes, instead of just one, as an insurance policy against catastrophic failures at Jupiter and beyond.
Yet the Voyagers worked, not just for the 5 years demanded of its builders but for 35 years and counting.
The technology [of the golden Voyager Interstellar Record], though outdated, has the advantage of longevity. As Iron Age cuneiform inscriptions remind us, grooves cut into a stable medium can last a long time.
The Voyager records should remain playable for at least a billion years before succumbing to erosion by micrometeorites and cosmic rays. A billion years is 5 times the age of the Atlantic Ocean, 5,000 times longer than Homo sapiens have existed.
It’s true, as Ed Stone says, that “Voyager is an incredible discovery machine, discovering things that we hadn’t even known we didn’t know.” But each probe is also a tough-as-nails, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet time capsule, carrying gifts proffered with no hope of return.
Should extraterrestrials ever intercept it, that fact may speak volumes. It suggests that however primitive and ignorant we were, something in us was expansive enough to consider that we were not the universe’s only scientists, nor its only explorers.
The golden Voyager Interstellar Record, with its selection of music pieces by Bach in particular, inspired an “evening length dance work” one can see here:
And here is a wonderful paper by Tiimothy A. Smith from 2003 about Bach’s music on the Voyager Record and its potential meaning for those who find it some day drifting in the Milky Way galaxy: