We sent a telegram flying to the stars 45 years ago.
In cosmic terms, we are tiny: were the galaxy the size of a typical LP, the sun and all its planets would fit inside an atom’s width. Yet there is something in us so expansive that, four decades ago, we made a time capsule full of music and photographs from Earth and flung it out into the universe.
Voyager 2 left Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 20 August 1977. NASA designed the 1,820-pound probe with the express purpose of photographing the outer planets of our solar system. Its twin, Voyager 1, left two weeks later (05 September).
Thanks to the diligence of the late Carl Sagan, each twin spacecraft carries a message to the stars, a Golden Record that serves as a “kind of time capsule.”
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. ~ President Jimmy Carter
The record contains 115 images; natural sounds of Earth, such as thunder and surf; a 90-minute selection of musical classics; and greetings from Earth cultures in 55 languages, starting with Akkadian, which was spoken about 6,000 years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect.
The 12-inch record is made from gold-plated copper and encased in an aluminum jacket. The jacket contains symbolic instructions that detail “the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.”
NASA asked Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University to assemble the greeting and determine its form.
The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. ~ Carl Sagan
Contextualizing 41 years of technological innovation:
“Your smart phone has 200,000 times more memory” than the Voyager spacecraft.
The Sun creates a protective bubble, the heliosphere, that extends past Pluto. Its edge is the heliopause. Both Voyager spacecraft have passed the heliopause and entered interstellar space. Both spacecraft continue to return data.
- On 25 August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It had travelled more than 12 billion miles. It is now almost 15 billion miles from Earth.
- On 05 November 2018, Voyager 2 entered interstellar space. “Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space… information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth.” Now it takes 18 hours for a signal to reach Earth; Voyager 2 is more than 12 billion miles from Earth.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to directly study how a star, our Sun, interacts with the particles and magnetic fields outside our heliosphere, helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between the stars, upending some of the theories about this region, and providing key information for future missions,” Linda Spilker, Voyager’s deputy project scientist at JPL, in a 17 August 2022 news release.
The Golden Record is affixed to the outside the spacecraft and is meant to survive as much as a billion years in space.
In about 20,000 years, the spacecraft should pass through the Oort cloud, “finally waving goodbye to its solar system of origin.” In about 30,000 years, the spacecraft may pass near a star.
- How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made (archive), The New Yorker (20 August 2017).
- Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Carl Sagan et al, 1978.