Saturday, September 22, 2012

At the end of all things

Voyager 1 image of the Earth. 'A pale blue dot, on a moat of dust, suspended in a sunbeam'
I recently watched an episode of the West Wing, and one quote not only reminded me of how great a writer Aaron Sorkin is; but it also made me ask ‘What will our final legacy to the universe be?’ 

“Voyager 1 just crossed the termination shock. The first man-made object ever to leave the solar system… Voyager, in case it is ever encountered by extra-terrestrials is carrying photos of life on earth, greetings in 55 languages, and a collection of music, from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry. Including; ‘Dark was the night (cold was the ground)’ by 20’s blues man Blind Willie Johnson, whose step-mother blinded him at seven by throwing lye in his eyes after his father beat her for  being with another man. He died, penniless, of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down. But his music just left the solar system.” 

His music just left the solar system. 

Voyager 1, along with four other spacecraft (Voyager 2, Pioneers 10 and 11, and New Horizons) are on trajectories that will take them outside of our solar system, each containing an offering from their planet of origin out into the far reaches of space. 
The trajectory of Voyagers 1 and 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11 out of the solar system.

So by the time any evidence that life once freely inhabited our planet has gone, what legacy of our existence will these spacecraft impart on the universe?

Launched in 1972 and 1973, Pioneer 10 and 11 were the first ambassadors out into the solar system. On the side of each spacecraft is an aluminium plaque on which is a pictograph of their passage through the solar system and beyond. The plaque was designed by Dr Carl Sagan and Dr Frank Drake and depicted a man and woman standing before an outline of the spacecraft, the mans had raised in a gesture of good will. The rest of the message can be deciphered by understanding the breakdown of neutral atomic hydrogen, which can be seen kind of like a key in the top left hand corner of the plaque. Both are now ghost ships silently drifting out to the stars and who knows perhaps if they bump into some extra terrestrial along the way, the plaques can provide them with a map to Earth (lets just hope that they are friendly). 

The Pioneer Plaque
Following in the example set by the Pioneer spacecraft  the Voyager Golden Record was placed on both Voyager 1 and 2 as they weaved their way past the planets in our solar system and out past the edges of the Suns influence. The Golden Record is a story book of the Earth with an array of recordings representing the diversity of our planet. On the reverse of the golden disk is a pictogram of how to play the information along with a message from U.S. President Jimmy Carter,

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and out feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours”

The pictogram on the back of the Voyager Golden Record explained
The most recent addition to the interstellar team is the New Horizons space craft which has made its way past Jupiter and is on its way towards Pluto and then out past the Kuiper belt where it will become the fifth man made object to leave the solar system. Following in the spirit of its predecessors, New Horizons is carrying on board a CD with 434,000 names submitted to the team as well as an image of each team member, two United States flags and two quarters representing the state of Florida where the mission was launched from. Although a less profound statement of humanity as there were not designed to be of aid to any extra terrestrial life that may be encountered (however unlikely that event is), the space craft also carries the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh with the inscription,

“Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”

New Horizons trajectory out of the solar system
These five spacecraft  will mark the furthest reaches of humanity into space for generations to come and are ambassadors for our future. And although I still have my fingers crossed for a working FTL drive in my lifetime, I will be realistic for a second and say that if these are the emissaries of the human race then what better way to be represented than the hope of greater things and courage of exploration.

An all sky map showing the projected region of sky that Voyager 1, Pioneer 11, Voyager 2, and Pioneer 10 (from left to right) is headed for.


To hear how the quote sounded on the show here is a youtube clip of the scene from The West Wing Season 5 Episode 13, The Warfare of Genghis Khan, February 2004 

Here is a great story of how the Florida Quarter nearly came from a local Burger King and finally made their way onto the New Horizon spacecraft. 

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