Voyager, the love story

One day, years from now–or maybe billions of years, no one knows–aliens might be surprised to run across an old spaceship from Earth. Improbably far from home, the ancient probe is space cold, its nuclear power source spent long ago; an iconic white antenna points silently into the void, beaming no data to the species that made it. Yet this Voyager may speak to its finders.

Rewind to 1977. Jimmy Carter was president, Star Wars was the top-grossing film, and NASA was preparing to launch the two Voyager probes to the outer planets. Like Pioneer 10 and 11 before them, Voyager 1 and 2 would fly by the gas giants and, after a frenzy of data-taking, slingshot out of the solar system. These spacecraft were to become interstellar ambassadors. Less than 9 months before launch, Carl Sagan was asked by NASA personnel to assemble “some message for a possible extraterrestrial civilization.

“Later, one member of Sagans small team would describe the process as “a fire drill” with nothing less at stake than First Contact itself.

“The chances of aliens finding the Voyagers in the vast emptiness of space are small—some say infinitesimal—but we took our jobs seriously,” recalls team member Ann Druyan. “From the moment when Carl first broached the project to Tim Ferris and me, it felt mythic.”

Voyager would carry a selection of Earths greatest music, a photo gallery of our planet and its inhabitants, and an audio essay of terrestrial sounds, both natural and technological. But how would this information be conveyed? A popular technology in the 1970s was the 8-track tape. That would never do. For one thing, what would ET think? Moreover, magnetic tape is susceptible to degradation by space radiation and magnetic fields. A message recorded on such a medium would decay long before it was found.Radio astronomer Frank Drake, who became a key member of Sagans team, suggested a phonograph record. Extraterrestrials would stand a good chance of figuring out how to play back such an old-school technology—and phonograph records were tough. By one estimate, the etchings on a suitably-shielded metallic phonograph record could last for hundreds of millions of years in interstellar space, eroded mainly by a slow drizzle of micrometeoroid impacts. A copper record coated in gold would satisfy the thermal and magnetic requirements of the Voyager probes.

Read the whole love story here (with video) Voyager, the love story.

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