In 1977, two spacecraft were launched from Earth, never to return: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They would travel so fast that eventually, they’d leave the solar system behind altogether, and become the first interstellar objects ever made. On board each Voyager was a Golden Record – a greeting to anyone out there that should find it. It was the least scientific element of the Voyager program, but its cultural importance is still felt today. This is the story of how humankind waved hello into the infinite void.
The Decision to Talk to the Stars
The Voyager program started life as a “Grand Tour” of the outer planets of the solar system. It capitalised on a rare orbital event that would bring Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune into close proximity, allowing a space probe to visit all of them in a single trip.
It would give humans the first close look at the giant planets and reveal amazing, unexpected discoveries – like active volcanoes and the tantalising prospect of liquid water on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
The flight path required enormous speeds – Voyager 1 was propelled to the fastest continuous speed of any human made object. Although it is continuously slowing down, Voyager 1 has a current speed of around 38,000 mph – more than enough to carry it into interstellar space. It’s well over 13 billion miles from home, the farthest any human made object has ever travelled.
Voyager 2 is a little slower, so it’s a couple of billion miles behind: the final encounter with Neptune resulted in a net loss of speed and a sharp change of course. It’s still going fast enough to escape the solar system – and will carry on travelling, like its twin Voyager 1, for as long as the path ahead it is clear. That could be forever – or until it’s found.
It was known from the start of the mission that the Voyagers would leave the solar system. The cultural significance of this was embraced by Carl Sagan, perhaps the most important celebrity scientist in modern history. The wandering spacecraft would be an ageless, floating monument to human civilisation – which he likened to a message in a bottle.
If they were found by intelligent extraterrestrials, how would we tell them who we were, where we came from and how we lived? Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of the Golden Record – a time capsule to be attached to each of the Voyagers.
Message in a Bottle
The message was encoded in diagrams and audio, data and images. It would require a species with intelligence to decode it, and to devise a way to play a record (unless they’d already been making their own music players). The reverse side of the Golden Record is engraved with instructions on how to play it, a diagram of where it came from and universal units of time.
Nobody knew if a civilisation in receipt of the record would have eyes, or ears – and even if they did, would they be able to translate it?
And why a record? Was there an assumption that aliens would be into vinyl?
Not exactly – at the time, records were the best available method of audio playback (and a lot of people would say that’s still true today). As far as physical storage goes, a record is incredibly robust: magnetic tape and hard drives would be stripped bare by the unimaginable magnetic field of Jupiter, and space radiation would destroy film or printed images, which would bleach and fade.
Even vinyl would be damaged beyond repair by the environment of space – so a specially made, copper record was designed, to be plated with pure gold: it won’t tarnish or show a hint of degradation for at least a billion years. If it avoids impacts or getting melted by a star, it may last as long as the universe itself – and still be playable.
The record is also date stamped – but not with the day, month or year: these concepts are meaningless to anything other than humans. Instead, an ultra-pure uranium isotope is embedded on the record’s cover. It has a very predictable rate of decay, meaning it can be dated in the same way ancient things on our own planet are dated.
So, this message in a bottle tells the discoverer where it came from, how to use it and how old it is. What about when they play the record?
A greeting was recorded in 55 languages. Chuck Berry, the great works of Bach and Mozart, obscure folk songs from around the planet and even whale song feature on the record. Sounds of the planet, from human laughter and animal vocalisations, to vehicles and tools being used are also on the record.
NASA released the non-musical audio content on Soundcloud, where anyone can listen to it for free:
There were images encoded on the record too. They depict people from around the world, how we eat and drink, our homes, how our babies grow and what we can do physically.
There are images of Earth from space, Jupiter and even diagrams of our DNA. It’s a broad look at us and our world. The sounds and images cast into space are a poignant reminder to ourselves that we’re human – and that we want to be liked. The fact that we’re showing only our best side was an eerie foreshadowing of how we tend to behave on social media: we haven’t shared the ideological ugliness, the wars and the destruction of our natural world. Only our very best.
The Golden Record should be the benchmark of what our best is: a peaceful hand, reaching across infinity, waiting to be taken. Even if it’s never found, never played and never understood – we have committed the best of ourselves to the stars. Let’s commit the same to our home world.
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