Space exploration, over past decades, has touched heights unprecedented and previously unthought of. From the first artificial satellite Sputnik I to pathbreakers Voyager and Gaia, we have seen the progressive advancement of spaceflight technology and an exponential rise in the amount information possessed by us humans about the world that lies beyond.
Among the most hyped and popular spacecrafts sent into space are the Voyager vessels. The Voyager program consists of two spacecrafts, titled Voyager 1 & 2, which were released into space in August-September 1977. They were meant to take advantage of an unusual and unique alignment of planets (that occurs only one every 175 years), and explore not only the outer solar system, but also the domain that lies outside it. They were, and still remain, the only mission meant to leave the solar system, toward open, outer space. But it also had a secondary mission- to look for signs of life beyond the Earth.
Voyager 2 was launched first, on 20th of August, 1977, and remains one of the few vessels to have flown by most planets of the outer solar system. Within 13 years of its launch, Voyager 2 had flown by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and the pictures relayed by it are still not only the most important, but among the best pictures of all gas giants.
Voyager 1 was launched a week later and did not cover all planets, but overtook its sister probe within 3 months of its launch. These probes carry a variety of instruments meant for reception of signals, relay of information back home and interpretation of images.
But they also a carry one immensely interesting object- The Golden Record.
The Disc Of Life
Around 1977, CDs (and certainly pen drives!) were quite a few years away. Records were among the few (and certainly the best) ways of storage of digital information, including pictures, tunes and recordings. Of course, the process of loading data onto them was far more complicated than it is for our devices today. Phonographs and records were immensely popular, particularly for songs, and were certainly not a rarity.
Astronomers in 1977 were surely not bereft of hope of finding life, as we know it, outside the Earth. Sightings of reported UFOs had caught public imagination and the idea of extraterrestrial life existing was very popular and certainly not out of context. So now that the Voyagers were to become the first objects to venture far out, astronomers in NASA decided to look for a way to send out a message to any kind of life that might stumble upon the craft. It was so decided that along with the Voyager, a record would be sent that contained symbols and signs of how life was pursued on our planet for them to understand us. The record is constructed of gold-plated copper, and is thus called the Voyager Golden Record.
The contents of the record were selected by a committee chaired by ace astronomer Carl Sagan, which also included artist (and Carl’s wife) Linda Salzman Sagan, author Ann Druyan, artist Jon Lomberg, astrophysicist F.D. Drake and science writer Ferris. The Golden record certainly wasn’t the first piece of information on mankind to have been sent into space, but was a massive upgrade to the earlier version- aluminium plaques sent aboard the Pioneer crafts, which contained inscriptions of a human man and woman along with those of hydrogen atoms and the planets of the solar system, which are also replicated on the Record.
The Golden Record contains a substantial amount of data, which includes one visual and four audio sections.
The first audio section contains a recorded greeting in English from Kurt Waldheim, the then Secretary General of the United Nations.
The second audio section, named ‘Greetings in 55 Languages’ contains spoken greetings in 55 languages. These include 5 extinct languages and ten India-based ones (Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Telugu and Urdu). It is a 4 minute 23 second track, beginning with a greeting in Sumerian, and ending with a children’s greeting in English. The messages vary from ‘Greetings from the people of Earth’ in Hindi, to ‘Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time’ in dialect Amoy.
The next section is called ‘Sounds of Earth’, and includes sound snippets of the common sounds heard on the Earth. These include sounds ranging from those of volcanoes, earthquakes, animals, wind and rain to those of motor vehicles and heartbeats. Also included within this section is a track containing the inspirational message per aspera ad astra in Morse code, which, translated from Latin, means ‘through hardships to the stars’.
The last audio section is devoted to the music of the world. It is a 90-minute section and contains 27 tracks, including quite a few world classics. From Symphony No. 5 and Cavtina by Beethoven and Die Zauberflöte by Mozart to Jaat Kahan Ho, based on Rag Bhairavi, by Kesarbai Kerkar, it contains a variety of tracks from all over the world.
The final section is the visual section, containing 116 images which describe in detail life, as it occurs on the Earth. Starting with mathematical and physical unit definitions and images of the solar spectrum and the Earth and other planets of the solar system, it goes on to show images detailing on life on Earth, such as those on the anatomy of the human body, natural variation in life on the Earth, various monuments built by humans (including the Taj Mahal), and symbols of the globalized world. The 116 images are encoded in analogue form, each composed of 512 vertical lines.
Our Very Own Time Capsule
The Voyager spacecrafts, one of them now officially in outer space, will have been completely abandoned by NASA by 2025. But they will keep travelling endlessly through space, the records aboard. In around 40,000 years, Voyager I is expected to be around 15 trillion kilometers (1.6 light years) from the star Gliese 445, currently in the constellation Camelopardalis. We do not know what the eventual fate of the spacecrafts will be, and whether they will remain entirely safe adrift in space, or be caught by some advanced civilization or hit by a spacefaring rock, or even whether they will stay adrift for billions of years before their end. The Golden Records are seen less as a serious attempt to look for advanced civilizations beyond, for we do not expect them to have phonographs or the records to even remain unscratched in case one pulls them down, and more as an effort symbolizing astronomers’ seriousness to communicate with other advanced civilizations in outer space. Nevertheless, they are our very own time capsules, drifting through space, waiting for someone to find them and receive our message of peace, love and life.
By Vishesh Kashyap
By NASA (NASA website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Voyager_Golden_Record.jpg: created by derivative work: Xession (Voyager_Golden_Record.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons