Voyager 1 11.08.11


In the final days of 2010, the Voyager 1 space probe approached the outer edge of the heliosphere, the bubble of particles created by our sun. After 33 years and four months of flight, it has reached the threshold of interstellar space, the unimaginable gulf of nothingness between the stars. We have been making tools for more than 2.6 million years: something we made is about to leave our solar system. And that's the most inclusive possible "we" – although it was built by brilliant men and women at NASA and launched on 5 September 1977, before many of us were born, Voyager 1 is something we can feel proud of on a species level. It was built with all of humanity in mind; its generosity and ambition as a project extends beyond humanity. Grand statements, but it's an object that justifies superlatives and widescreen rhetoric.

Despite having more than 10.6 billion miles on the clock, the most travelled human object in history is in amazingly good shape. Its plutonium-fuelled thermoelectric generator is still powering the probe's instruments, and it is thanks to this finger in the solar wind that we know it is reaching the outer limit of our sun's influence. And before it struck out for the bright lights of the galactic core, it toured the sights of our corner of space, providing us with our first high-definition images of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

But Voyager 1's achievement in approaching interstellar space goes beyond a vaguely chauvinist sense that we have extended our reach as a species – the pride that comes from finally getting a toy out of the pram. It improves our chances of a kind of immortality: if a calamity were to befall the sun and the inner planets of the solar system, Voyager 1, its sister probe Voyager 2, and a few other objects like the earlier Pioneer probes, could be the only traces of humanity that remain.

A tiny fragment of our technological civilisation, hurtling into the blackness at 1.6 million km a day, Voyager 1 is also an emissary. As such, it carries with it one of the select few objects that have been designed with non-human intelligences in mind. The Voyager "golden record" is a gold-plated phonograph disc mounted on the side of the spacecraft. One side is engraved with a star map giving Voyager's origin, the structure of hydrogen, and a few clues as to how to get access to the data on the other side of the disc. And that other side is a treasury of information about Earth and humanity. Assembled by a team led by astronomer, writer and philosopher Carl Sagan, the data side of the disc has recordings of music, the sounds of rain, machinery and animals, greetings in 55 languages, and 116 images. Unless something collides with it, Voyager 1 will continue this part of its mission, taking a message to the heart of the galaxy, for millions of years.

Only one other human artefact has the same reach, and the same potential to outlive us and pique the curiosity of other intelligences. The electromagnetic shell created by our radio and television broadcasts now forms a sphere more than 120 light-years across, extending out from the solar system in all directions and encompassing more than 10,000 star systems. But while that expanding cloud of sitcoms and infomercials, docu-soaps and game shows will certainly give ET its most lifelike view of humanity, Voyager 1 is a concise and beautiful expression of what we aspire to be: inquisitive, questing, ingenious, hopeful, peaceful.






William Wiles

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Only one other human artefact has the same reach, and the same potential to outlive us and pique the curiosity of other intelligences

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