Sunday, November 29, 2009

Past one-hundred thousand miles

This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.
-Jimmy Carter

Ever since I was little I've been fascinated by outer space. This went beyond squealing "Astronaut!" whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I borrowed books from the library and studied each planet and its moons, I drew pictures of them, of astronauts; hell, I have an old drawing that made a huge nerdy joke about how to make a star with an E-Z Bake Oven that involved the sentence, "Set the timer to 50 million years!"

Needless to say (or needful, if you're a new reader or just don't know me that well), that obsession hasn't faded. Though the feverish research has slowed, my fascination with space has not decreased from that which I held as a wee lass. On the rare chance I get to look up at a clear, star-filled night sky, I still swell with emotions ranging from hope, love, sadness, yearning, and wanderlust. I still let my eyes linger just a few moments longer when I pass anything space-related, and you can bet that all the cheesiest romantic depictions of space and space travel still sends my heart soaring.

Not a lot of people I know share this emotion with me, at least not with the level of intensity I feel. I did meet a girl in my painting class last week who seemed to, so I'll talk to her more and gush about space :D

But today I StumbledUpon this random image and was, of course, fascinated. If you look at the bottom, you'll see a scale of the solar system and beyond. At the very end of that scale, just a little over 10 billion miles (or ~110 AU) from Earth, is the Voyager 1, a spacecraft launched in 1977 first intended to do flyby missions of Jupiter and Saturn. It survived much longer than that and penetrated the termination shock, successfully entering the heliosheath—in layman's terms, this is where the power of the Sun and its solar winds start to lose influence. It's a grey area between the sphere of the Sun's influence and the medium of cold, empty interstellar space. In this area, conditions are extremely turbulent, making it a huge success that the Voyager 1 was able to survive. As of right now, it is the farthest from Earth any man-made object has ever been. And guess what? We're still in contact with it. This thing was launched in 1977, it's 2009 now and we can still gather data from it.


Through the years its mission has changed—first it was just a flyby to Jupiter and Saturn, then it visited the rest of the gas giants Uranus and Neptune, and now its mission is to gather data on the conditions past our solar system.

But here's the part I really wanted to hilight (not that any of the above information is supposed to be just useless introduction! I hope you found it very interesting!!): Aboard the Voyager 1 is something called the Voyager Golden Record. It is a gold-plated copper record filled with the sounds of earth, including sound clips of volcanoes, rain, surf, various animals, heartbeats, laughters, greetings in various human languages, songs from various genres of music from all over the world, and many more. On the cover are pictographic instructions of how the record is to be played, as well as the location of our Sun.

What the heck is this thing doing on the Voyager 1?

Well... isn't it obvious? It's for any intelligent life-form that comes across it.
If you're not native to Earth, or are but just really far in the future, then this recorded is for you. At the time of the Record's conception and realization, all astronomers and parties on the committee were aware that the odds of any intelligent lifeform actually finding it and getting to play it are highly unlikely. By the time any life form finds it, it will probably have been beaten up by random space debris and radiation, too. Knowing this, the idea of ever having made it is ludicrous at best.

But the Record's intention is not to make contact. It serves as a symbol of our culture and how far we've gotten up to that point, a little bit of evidence of us to exist long after our race and our planet has died.

It's like a kid building a sand castle close to the shore, knowing it will only wash away but continuing to build anyway because that's where the sand is richest for castle-building. Space is where the human capacity for imagination, fantasy, and hope is richest. Why do you think the search for planets outside the solar system pinpoints its search to "Earthlike planets?" Why do we want to know if it can support life? Aside from future colonization, deep down, we're all just hoping there's someone else out there, that we aren't alone. So like that child building the castle, we're going to continue searching for life forms—dreaming, praying, and hoping that we aren't really so alone in this vast Universe; hoping that one day our castles will stand and our legacy will be known.

When even the most childish fantasy can exist within the thoughts of today's greatest scientific minds, my hope in humanity is restored and my lifelong obsessions justified.

Learn more about the Voyager campaign.
Learn more about the Voyager Golden Record.
See that amazing picture again.

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