Christopher Nolan's recently released Interstellar might claim to show the majesty of interstellar space travel for the IMAX flocking public, but even this glossy eye-feast has to pale in comparison to humanity's real-life explorations into interstellar space.
You see, leaving our solar system isn't the stuff of science-fiction blockbusters, it's something humanity has already achieved - with a piece of technology from the 1970s. The Voyager 1 probe, which launched on September 1977, has embarked on the longest journey of any manmade object - a staggering 12 billion miles. On September 12, 2013 NASA officially confirmed Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space - making it the first spacecraft ever to do so.
Voyager's Never-Ending Mission
Now, the Voyager 1 probe has been on a lot of interesting excursions during its 37 year long galactic tour, but perhaps the most exciting thing about the probe is its 'extended mission.' Basically, now the probe has left our heliosphere, it is on an indefinite mission to explore the far reaches of space. Unfortunately, Voyager 1's systems will eventually shut down in around 2025 meaning its research role will end, however it is carrying an important payload for anyone (or anything) that might stumble across the plucky little probe.
Onboard the probe is a golden record and images which are designed to act as a first greeting to any potential extraterrestrial life Voyager may encounter. Included on these records are around 5 hours of recordings ranging from music to natural sounds and greetings from world leaders.
The Sounds of Earth
The record, which was developed by Carl Sagan, certainly makes for interesting listening - especially since it was designed to show Earth's diversity and variety to lifeforms with no point of reference. The Sounds of Earth section in particular is a slightly strange, if ultimately heartwarming and self-affirming, collection of sounds including weather, animal calls and vehicles.
On a first listening, the record does kind of resemble a Pink Floyd concept album, however you soon realize the logic and structure of the piece - showing Earth's initial creation and ultimately man's evolution through sound. You can listen to the entire thing below:
As well as the Sounds of Earth, Voyager also contains over 90 minutes of music from around the world. Tribal and ethnic music features prominently, as does music from Bach and Beethoven. However, perhaps most toe-tappingly awesome of all is the inclusion of Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode. Screw our natural resources, any aliens coming to invade us now might just be after more Chuck Berry.
Greetings From Earth
But it's not all just fun and games, the discs also include greetings from world leaders and members of the public. One track features salutations in 55 different languages, while former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim also made a statement on behalf of all of humanity.
The record ends with recordings of previous NASA missions and the discussion of the technical elements of human space exploration.
Images of Earth
Included with the golden record are also 115 images showing Earth, humanity and basic mathematics. Like the Sounds of Earth recordings, these images were also chosen to show the range of life, culture and activity on Earth. Here is a selection of some of the images placed aboard Voyager 1:
Now, I don't know about you, but it warms the heart of this stoney-cynic to know that somewhere out there, there is a little piece of humanity hurtling through space at 17 kilometres a second.
No one is really expecting aliens to pick up the records any time soon. One possible chance of encountering extraterrestrial could occur within the vicinity of Gliese 445, a star in the Camelolardalis constellation. Unfortunately, Voyager 1 doesn't expect to get there until another 45,000 years. Having said that, there could theoretically be advanced civilizations who've also reached interstellar space and could intercept Voyager there.
In this sense, although the golden disk was seriously and professionally developed, it is more of a 'message in a bottle' than an actual attempt to communicate with aliens. Carl Sagan noted:
The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet.
Therefore, realistically, it's probably best to see the golden disk as symbolic and nothing practically more. However, there is an interesting element to all this. As Sagan suggests, perhaps these records and images tell us more about ourselves than anything else. The images and sounds we chose to select present a peaceful, outlooking world which appears to value its diversity above anything else.
Now, although the real-world doesn't always seem this optimistic, I think it says something positive that this is the element of humanity we'd like to communicate to others.
What do you think? What else would you have included on Voyager 1?
Do you think Voyager 1 will ever encounter extraterrestrial life?