After nearly 45 years, NASA announced that their pioneering Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are beginning to power down. Of the spacecrafts’ nine instruments, five of Voyager 2’s and only four of Voyager 1’s are still operational. Scientists predict the spacecraft will be completely shut down by 2030. Not bad for a pair of experimental probes designed for a four-year mission.
When the twin spacecraft were launched in 1977, their primary mission was to observe Jupiter and Saturn. Scientists were taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime planetary alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This alignment would allow the gravity of each succeeding planet to pull Voyager 1 and 2 on their destined paths. And it worked! The spacecraft ended up observing all four planets and beyond.
But it was never Voyager’s destiny to come back to its planet of origin. Instead, the spacecraft would stay in communication with Earth for as long as possible as they continued to drift farther and farther into space. The NASA website continues to publish the readings they receive from Voyager. When I am writing, Voyager 2 is 19,412,747,856 km from Earth; Voyager 1 is 23,326,184,354 km from Earth. It is the farthest humans have ever launched a man-made object into space.
As Voyager 1 and 2 come to the end of their scientific explorations, they will begin a new mission – commemoration. The remains of Voyager 1 and 2 continue to drift through space. In 300 years, scientists estimate they will reach the Oort Cloud, the theoretical boundary of our home solar system. The remains of the spacecraft will serve as a testament to human innovation, exploration, and discovery in the cold, dark endlessness of the universe.
But the concept of commemoration goes further than this. Voyager 1 and 2 are also elaborate message-in-a-bottles, each carrying a time capsule from 1977. These time capsules took the form of phonograph records with recorded greetings, music, and sounds of Earth. It also included 115 analog images displaying scientific information about Earth and humans, as well as pictures selected to convey human culture.
Now, if there are other forms of advanced life in universe, the Voyager time capsules are probably not going to be their first impression of humans. For decades we have inadvertently been beaming radio waves full of information at light speed out into the unknown. These waves are far more likely to be detected than the two Voyager spacecraft, each roughly the size of a 1970s Volkswagen Beetle.
However, if ever discovered and translated, these time capsules would send a different message. Rather than a smorgasbord of Earth’s communications, the Voyager records represent an idealized version of humanity and Earth as crafted by a select team of scholars, headed by Dr. Carl Sagan. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the sound of crickets, and an image of a mother breastfeeding her child are a small selection of what the team included. Notably, there are no direct depictions of violence, conflict, or war.
There is plenty of discussion to be had over what was included and excluded in the time capsules, who got to make the decisions about what to include, and how humanity was represented. However, what I find most intriguing about the Voyager records are that they are some of the few commemorations made by humans, of humanity, that are not for humans. They are for a lifeform so foreign and unknown that the very basics of our communication and anatomy are explained, with the hope that this new species will be able to translate it. It represents a crafted introduction to humanity as it stood in the eyes of a specific team of researchers in 1977.
So much of commemoration is meant as a farewell – to remember what has been lost or what has passed. And as we begin to bid farewell to Voyager 1 and 2, I find it moving that they will indefinitely be carrying one of humanity’s most treasured “Hellos”.