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Reaching beyond the stars

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2003

Perusing the Internet with my 11-year-old daughter the other day, we came across a recent article about NASA's Voyager Project and how Voyager 1 is nearing the limits of the solar system.

Aimed at the constellation Ophiuchus, this half ton of now ancient 20th Century technological magic carries messages from humankind. Kate was fascinated. So was I. Again.

According to Web sites dedicated to the project, Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is now roughly 8.4 billion miles from Earth and approaching the heliopause by some definitions, the edge of the solar system. Human-kind's most distant creation, Voyager 1 is leaving the planetary plane the ecliptic to the "north" on a vector about parallel to the motion of the sun in relation to nearby stars.

Also launched in 1977 but headed south of the ecliptic toward the constellations of Sagittarius and Pavo, is Voyager 2 a twin of Voyager 1, also carrying messages from Earth.

Those messages are recorded on gold-plated copper discs and include more than 100 images of Earth: a picture of a woman nursing a baby; a page from "Principia Mathematica" by Isaac Newton; and a picture of the radio telescope at Arecibo, to name a few.

Also recorded on the discs are greetings from Earth spoken in 55 different languages, including tongues no one speaks anymore save linguists. Recordings are available on the Internet. Kate and I listened intently.

Among the languages is Akkadian, which was spoken in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago. Sounding roughly like "Ad-on-ish-lu-shu-moo," it translates into modern English as "May all be very well."

The English contribution, by the way, is a child saying, "Hello, from the children of planet Earth."

Among the more inviting is one in Amoy, a Chinese dialect. It translates as, "Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time."

Sound a bid disconcerting? What if "They" are really hungry?

No worries. Unless space-faring life forms already are in our neighborhood, Voyager 1 isn't expected anywhere near the vicinity of a star before 40,272 A.D., and even then its closest approach to AC+79 3888 (the star's name) in the Little Dipper will be 1.7 light years or about 5.6 trillion miles. Line up the equivalent number of inchworms end to end and the little critters would stretch from here to the sun. Try stacking up that number of pennies and you'd have, well, one inconvenient mound of copper.

Voyager 2, meanwhile, will be approaching Ross 248 in the constellation Andromeda, but alas, also passing no closer than 1.7 light years.

Unless our extraterrestrial friends are virtually omnipresent, the chances are slim indeed that they would stumble across the tiny bits of space debris.

By that time, presuming we don't annihilate each other, we will have long since found ways to travel to the stars far more quickly than the Voyagers are traveling. I wonder if some future generation will consider those spacecraft of such historical value that they mount expeditions to retrieve them. Shouldn't take more than an afternoon at Warp 9.

The discs also contain more than two dozen examples of Earth music, from Ludvig von Beethoven to Chuck Berry, as well as assorted sounds of the planet, everything from volcanoes to traffic jams. The discs include various images, including two telling readers how to play the records. A needle and cartridge talk about obsolete technology are included.

The Voyager messages are upscale versions of the messages mounted on Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in the early 1970s, which included sketches of a man and a woman next to the spacecraft to show our scale. Those two crafts also will leave the solar system, Pioneer 10 headed to Taurus (the Bull), a 2 million-year journey, and Pioneer 11 headed toward Aquila (the Eagle), arriving in about 4 million years.

All four machines carry maps to Earth in binary code.

The Voyagers and the Pioneers have sent back a wealth of information about the nearby planets, including 22 new satellites, and about the solar system's environment, its magnetosphere and the solar wind.

On Feb. 14, 1990, after it had journeyed beyond Pluto, Voyager 1 was directed to turn its camera toward the sun and take photographs of the solar system. Those pictures can be found at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/ by entering PIA00451 in the query box. Earth is a fuzzy dot. For that matter, so is the sun.

The word lonely comes to mind. Voyager 1 is heading into the vast emptiness of interstellar space, many of its powered internal systems selectively shut down as time passed to conserve what limited energy remains. Thirteen years ago, it turned to wave goodbye, sending a last picture of home from the distant beyond, then rolled its eye forward again toward the stars, outbound at a lazy 38,000 mph.

Here on Earth, life goes on. Those solar system-exiting spaceships are the modern expressions of why humans erect monuments and seek far horizons to find out what's out there and leave something of ourselves behind for future generations even if, in this case, they might not be human.

In this, we have succeeded like never before. The spacecraft are likely to far outlast anything made by humans still weathering in Earth's corrosive atmosphere. The pyramids themselves may be dust before Voyager 1 slips silently past AC+79 3888.

Perhaps it was no more than anthropomorphic vanity that led scientists, including the famed Carl Sagan, to create or record the messages that accompany the extra-solar travelers. Certainly the science was worth the trouble of their launches. But it was a one giant "what if" that encouraged adding salutations to whomever or whatever might find one along with star maps back to our hearths.

Interested in the continuing the Voyager Project? You can visit at http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/voyager.html.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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