Decoding the disk; are you smarter than a humanoid? (Credit: NASA/JPL).
If we were to vanish from the cosmic scene tomorrow, what would be our most lasting impact? Would it be our monuments, our terrestrial relics, or our broadcasts of I Love Lucy and the Jerry Springer Show? Thankfully, researchers in the 1970’s designed a “message in a bottle” to be tossed out across the cosmic sea attached to the twin Voyager spacecraft. Launched in 1977, both spacecraft reconnoitered the outer planets before being flung on trajectories that will leave our solar system. Along with the Pioneer 10 and 11 and New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto, they stand as the less than half a dozen human made artifacts to do so. Recognizing this, Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan constructed a record containing the sounds of our humble planet. Mozart, Chuck Berry, whale song, greetings in various languages, and 116 images to be digitally reassembled are included in the recording. The translated brainwaves of a human in love (Ann Druyan’s own) are included in the mix. Other, more subtle clues are included in the construction of the record. For example, the isotope uranium-238 was electroplated onto the records aluminum cover with hopes that the discoverers can use it to discern the approximate length on time that the craft has been in space. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years, and the record itself was cast in gold-plated copper. A stylus is provided along with engraved instructions on one side of the disk; the idea is that the unit be self contained and ready to play even after eons in space.
But the true value of the whole exercise of sending a message to the stars is that it allows us to look inward and decide what we think of ourselves. Think about it; if YOU where the spokesperson for humanity and only had a limited amount of info to use, what would you send? Beethoven, Metallica, Ice Cube’s Greatest Hits? This gets at the essence of what we deem to be man’s greatest achievements, and what it means to be human.
Voyager 1 got ejected from the solar plane as the price for a flyby of the moon Titan in 1980 and is now the most distant object ever at over 117 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Sun headed off in the constellation Ophiuchus. Voyager 2 is 95 A.U. distant and is off in direction of the constellation Telescopium. Both will take millions of years to encounter the nearest stars along their trajectories; if any intelligence does come into possession of these disks, it will be a space-faring one.
Curiously, the New Horizons spacecraft carries only a bizarre assortment of earthly nick-knacks, including a Maryland state quarter and the ashes of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh (Could aliens one day clone Tombaugh? Is there a sci-fi story in there?) It also contains a CD-ROM with about 434,000 names onboard, including that of Astroguyz. This assortment will no doubt prove quizzical to any alien salvagers. Perhaps humanoids are large George Washington-looking heads with one snail-like foot? Hey, I’m just sayin’…