Voyager at 40

Opinion / Sep. 7, 2017 9:06am EDT

NASA launched the Voyager 1 space probe 40 years ago on Tuesday, just a couple weeks after sending off its twin, Voyager 2. Those contraptions were built in a turbulent era, not unlike our own, with the mission of extending humankind’s vision into the furthest reaches of outer space.

The two Voyagers have done us proud. The project found that Jupiter’s red dot is in fact a massive, hurricane-like storm; it found a nitrogen-rich atmosphere (like Earth’s) on Saturn’s moon, Titan; and took temperature readings from Uranus, the solar system’s coldest planet.

In February of 1990, Voyager 1 turned its cameras around and photographed Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune from a distance, a “Solar System family portrait.” From about four billion miles away, Earth appears as a tiny, speck, on which, as famed astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out, “every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.”

The home of everything we’ve ever done, the stage for our kindness and cruelty, so grand in scale from our point of view, is practically invisible amidst the vastness of space.

As I type this sentence, Voyager 1 is nearly 13 billion miles away from our planet—almost 140 times the distance between the earth and the sun. Voyager 2 is a little bit closer to home.

Both Voyagers carry, afixed to their hulls, a record made of gold and encoded with sights and sounds of life on Earth, carrying humankind’s voice ever further into space.

In 1977, the Cold War still simmered, nuclear testing was going on around the world, and a blackout in New York plunged the city into darkness for 25 hours of hysteria.

Imagine if another species ever came upon that record and were able to decode its contents. What might they they think of the time capsule we sent into space four decades ago?

So much and so little has changed. I wonder what we might put on that record today.

T. Calabro

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