The Legacy of the Voyager Space Probes
Since we were young, we’ve been taught to remember the once nine, now eight planets (sorry Pluto) that make up our solar system. Perhaps you were taught a mnemonic device like, “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” Or if you were like me, you were forced to memorize an excruciatingly annoying song about the planets, and recite them to the entire class. My point is that we’ve always put value on our solar community, but humans have managed to leave it. Yes, not one, but two creations of mankind have reached beyond our solar system. Voyagers 1 and 2 have both provided crucial information about our neighboring planets.
It was on August 22, and September 5 of 1977 that Voyagers 2 and 1 launched, respectively. Voyager 1 was named that because it would be the first of the two probes to reach Jupiter even though Voyager 2 was actually launched first. It was a project which had its origins in the summer of 1965 when NASA scientists discovered that once every 176 years, an alignment occurred which would allow a probe to visit Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune using the gravity of each planet to propel it to the next. In 1972, NASA approved the Mariner Jupiter/Saturn Project which would later become Voyager. The mission was to create a probe that could utilize the once-in-a lifetime alignment to observe both gas giants of Saturn and Jupiter.
Re-named Voyager in 1977, the probe was launched that summer, but carried with it more than just camera equipment. Voyager also carried a Golden Record filled with sounds and images of life on earth, meant to serve as a greetings and introduction to any extraterrestrials who may discover it. Previous probes had carried messages, but none this detailed. The record contained greetings in 55 languages. Some of the messages gave well wishes, like a Welsh greeting which said “Good health to you now and forever.” But some go even further! In the Swedish greeting, Gunnel Almgren Schaar says “Greetings from a computer programmer in the small university town of Ithaca on Planet Earth.” That’s right. Ithaca is on the golden record. That means that no matter what happens to humanity, there will always be a disk floating around the universe which notes Ithaca’s existence. Take that Cortland!
Then again, this isn’t too surprising since famed astronomer, and long time Ithaca resident Carl Sagan was heavily involved with both the Voyager and Golden Record project.
Besides the greeting, the record also includes sounds of human life and animals. The record contains images of diverse human life from tribes in Africa to car-filled streets. Human anatomy is also shown along with scientific formulas and detailed photos of various cities. Lastly, the record includes music from the likes of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It also contains cultural music from Peru, Japan, Mexico and even the legendary rock song Johnny B. Goode.
Besides the record, Voyagers 1 and 2 have revealed amazing secrets about our solar neighbors. They revealed “The Red Spot” on Jupiter to be a massive cyclone type storm which rages across a large portion of the planet. The probes also encountered Saturn’s legendary rings and discovered a nitrogen atmosphere and seas of liquid methane on the surface of the moon Titan.
But perhaps the most moving of the Voyager probes’ contributions were its very last ones. In 1990, right before the cameras were to be turned off on the Voyager probes forever, the Voyager took its final photos of the Earth and all its fellow planets in what has become known as the “Solar System Family Portrait.” This photo inspired Carl Sagan to call our home a “Pale Blue Dot.” In a matter of three words Sagan managed to encompass how the picture made us all feel. It made us humble. It reminded us that our planet is just one small rock in an infinite universe. It made any conflict over borders and land seem petty and childish. Whether this design was intelligent or random it is one we are all a part of now and forever. But despite this humbling feeling we still voyage on. We still look to the stars. Though we may be cosmically insignificant, projects like Voyager and The Golden Record shows that at the very least humanity is significant to itself.
And with that final humbling image, Voyager 1 and 2 boldly entered the unknown: interstellar space, a place no man nor machine has gone.
George Christopher is a first-year journalism major wondering what kind of record player aliens like. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Art Editor, Adam Dee.