Last week, NASA officially announced that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has left our Solar System. Voyager 1 is a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977 to study the planets and moons between here and the outer boundaries of our Solar System. With companion craft Voyager 2 at its back, Voyager 1 completed this primary mission in 1980 and has since been sending back data about what lies beyond these worlds.
While this official announcement was made only days ago, NASA says Voyager 1 actually escaped our Sun's realm last year. NASA's announcement is somewhat controversial because the term "Solar System" has multiple definitions, depending on who you're talkin' to. Some scientists consider the Solar System to include a much wider reach, and assert that Voyager 1 will not leave our Sun's domain for another 30,000 years.
But let's not quibble over millennia. Instead let us pause to consider what a tremendous, historical event this is. At no point before has a man-made object left our Solar System. At no point in the history of our planet have beings on it sent an object they constructed this far into space. Equally staggering is the speed at which we accelerated to this major First for Mankind.
In the days of old, a few generations could come and go without seeing a whole lot of progress. Today, if you are a 90 year old person, you were born in an era wherein the first liquid fueled rockets were being tested, and space exploration still only existed in one's imagination. You would have been around for the discovery that our Milky Way is just one of many galaxies, and the emergence of the theory that it all began with The Big Bang. In 1961 you would have seen the Soviet Union launch the very first human being into outer space. Four years later, you would have seen another cosmonaut make history with the first spacewalk, leaving his craft for 12 minutes - only his thin spacesuit shielding him from the deadly vacuum of space. In 1968 you would have seen NASA's Apollo 8 mission make the first orbit of the Moon, travelling farther from Earth than we'd ever before, and beaming back Mankind's first images of our small home planet as it looks hanging in the emptiness of outer space. A year later you would have been glued to the television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, and human beings walked on another world for the first time. You would have seen the first space station, and witnessed the era of the Space Shuttle.
From the first liquid fueled rocket tests to Voyager 1 leaving our Solar System. That's a lot of progress in a single lifetime.
Now, the Voyager 1 is transporting the first piece of snail mail to reach interstellar space. The probe carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc, specifically designed to communicate with any intelligent life that may happen upon our spacecraft. This "Golden Record" contains photos of Earth, its lifeforms, spoken greetings in 56 languages, and various audio recordings of common Earth sounds, including birds, a baby crying, and music - from Beethoven to Chuck Berry.
The disc also contains diagrams of our Solar System, in case anyone stumbling across our Golden Record should want to swing by for a visit. The likelihood of an alien civilization discovering our tiny craft in the vastness of interstellar space is slim to none... especially since Voyager 1 will run out of power and go completely cold in 2025. Furthermore, the craft won't travel near another star for another 40,000 years... and that one ain't likely to have intelligent life buzzing around it. If anyone out there is going to receive our snail mail, and give our Golden Record a spin, it won't be for a very, very long time.
When and if it happens, I wonder if those alien beings will have been looking up at their own sky, questioning if life exists elsewhere. Perhaps their discovery of our Golden Record will be their first indication that they're not alone in the universe. I wonder if they'll travel to our Solar System, to meet the future version of us, or study our long-buried remains, or share the golden relic of interstellar snail mail with the beings that inhabit this Solar System after we're gone.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze