Voyager In Deep Space: Set For Stellar Rendezvous In 40,000 Years

Carl Sagan headed the team which produced the famous Golden Records, sent along on the two Voyager spacecraft. The records contain a sampling of human cultural artifacts, and may ultimately serve as humanity's eternal gravestone in outer space.
When you're talking about Voyager, you have to do something most people simply cannot do: take the long view.

An amazing human accomplishment has just occurred (actually, it happened last year, but it was confirmed by NASA yesterday). The first human-made object has left the solar system, and is now traveling in interstellar space. First time ever. 

As a human being, you should be awesomely proud of your species. But maybe, given how utterly fucked-up the Earth remains in 2013, you don't see much point in that. 

So, why should you care about this?

I'll get to that in a moment.

Or you know, you could just watch this and see if it explains it:

First, let's talk about Voyager I—and Luke Skywalker.

A lot of you did not exist when Voyager I began exploring space, just over 36 years ago. The world in September, 1977 was a lot different of course. It seemed much closer to being obliterated in some stupid nuclear holocaust. But it also seemed much more open to looking to science to provide solutions to problems, especially through the explorations of outer space. 

A few months before Voyager I lifted off, a little movie called Star Wars had premiered, and space was definitely the cool (well, nerdy-cool) thing to be doing and caring about that summer.

I had waited till late in July to go see Star Wars. The incredibly long lines, which I did not wish to stand in, had dwindled a bit for matinees. Being a fan of George Lucas, before Star Wars, I had read a lot about the movie. And I ended up seeing it several times that year. The first time however was the best.

I went by myself one afternoon, after a long night of smoking the most amazing Columbian-Hawaiian hybrid marijuana—hydroponically grown by botanists at the University of Texas at Austin. The den I had visited was littered with bodies of the passed-out—done in by a single solid bong hit. It was some good shit.

The next day I was still high as I nestled into my front-center-seat of the theater. As it turned out, I was soon surrounded by a group of boys, about nine years old or so, who occupied the two rows in front of me. At first I was pretty irritated. Especially as one kid insisted on telling all the others about how he had seen the movie already FIVE TIMES! But as I discovered, this was the appropriate audience for Star Wars. And I was kind of in an adult version of their headspace. Fortunately, as the old-timer was launching into telling the entire plot to his friends, they had the good sense to tell him to shut up.

And then the movie started.

The special effects of the movie, which amazed even old, "straight", critics, absolutely floored me. The lights were shimmering and shattering and seemed to come off the screen. The story, which I would have usually filtered with a bunch of technical analysis, was enjoyed by me as a straight narrative. I thought it rocked. So did the kids. They clapped hard at the end.

And then, a few months later, while the Star Wars phenomenon was still very hot, the Voyager I project lifted off for the stars. First, Voyager would travel by Jupiter and Saturn, taking some amazing photos. And then, aiming for a very long journey, the little nuclear-powered spacecraft headed out of the solar system. Last year, in August, it finally made it.

They tell us that in about 40,000 years, Voyager I will have a relatively close flyby to Gliese 445, "currently 17.6 light-years from the Sun". To put this into perspective, all of human civilization, that we have been able to track, amounts to about 10,000 years—going back to when agriculture was first practiced and people began to settle in villages in the large river valleys of the world.

In 40,000 years, assuming humans have survived, especially as anything recognizably human, will we even care our little robot is still plowing through space for us?

The question I promised to answer is: why should you care about it now?

Because it is this striving quality of human beings, to know and to grow and to try amazingly difficult things, which gives us our greatest and really only chance at long-term survival.

Carl Sagan doubted whether, in the transition from a primitive, to a highly technological, society, humanity could survive. Scientists of his era postulated that this was likely a barrier to the survival of intelligent life in the Universe, which might explain why we could see no evidence that such life exists—other than humans. In other words, the scientists wondered, did all intelligent species blow themselves up or otherwise eradicate themselves shortly after obtaining technological (and especially nuclear) enlightenment? Was wisdom always too slow in coming? 

And would this be the fate of humans too?

If so, another role for Voyager I and its sister spacecraft Voyager II, will be to serve as interstellar gravestones for humanity. In both spacecraft, golden records explaining who and what humanity is, were sent along. If an alien species can decipher the records, which includes symbolic instructions for how to play them (on a phonograph!), it will learn about us, and perhaps will come looking for us. Let us hope they do not come looking for lunch. Let us hope they do not come looking for a long dead species.


Eric Wagner said…
I always enjoy your blog. I wonder what you will make of next week's "Breaking Bad" finale.

I saw "Star Wars" the weekend it came out. Have you read Tim Leary's Game of Life? It combined enthusiasm for space exploration with a very idiosyncratic model of the tarot trumps.