Hi there. The gold Pioneer plaque, affixed to both Pioneer spacecraft.
Who remembers Voyager 2? I do! The 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 projects are still ongoing at NASA. Voyager 1 and 2, as well as the 1972-1973 Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, were sent to gather information, and bore messages that distilled the life on our planet down to a picture, a collection of sounds, and simple messages describing the apex of human development and scientific knowledge.
The plaque on Pioneer 10.
They serve two purposes. They are time space capsules and attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence. The spacecraft are historical artifacts, and their messages for alien life sum up human existence, a 'message in a bottle' cast into the sea of space. Any object that washes up on a beach should be treated with caution. A message in a bottle could inspire a rescue of a scarecrow castaway. More often, bottles on beaches are considered a bad sign, a key to a mystery better left alone. In that regard, there was something disingenuous about the 'we come in peace' imagery associated with the Pioneer project. The Pioneer plaques were created at a time when space exploration was optimistic, a product of global village idealism. At its best, space exploration still embodies that part of human ambition. More likely, it will come to reflect the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's 1946 short story Rescue Party, about advanced aliens who come to aid humans as earth is destroyed and soon regret it. There is more to the human interest in space than benevolent adventurousness. You can read Clarke's story here.
Both Pioneer spacecraft have deviated from their projected paths in a mysterious phenomenon called the Pioneer anomaly. Voyager 2 popped up in the news in late May of this year, when it began sending back garbled messages that seemed to contain some sort of pattern. Speculation that it had been commandeered by aliens who were using it as a transmitter dissolved into a less exciting computer glitch, which was probably just as well. Stephen Hawking believes we should lie low, and hope aliens don't notice us. His view of alien life is strangely anthropomorphic. Ironically, his reasoning echoes the thoughts which create gods and establish organized religions: he ascribes human attributes to ill-understood powerful natural quantities and creatures. Hawking assumes that aliens will suffer the problems of environmental exhaustion we humans confront, and that, having consumed all their resources will then go maurauding in medieval style through the galaxies looking for more. Of course, over-consumption as an excuse for aggression, hierarchical social arrangements and tool development is something high simians thing to do. There may be a gap in Hawking's assessment of alien psychology. For although he acknowledges the perils of human-centric thinking, his understanding of the future is akin to the Ptolemaic view of the universe, which privileged a geocentric over a heliocentric model of the solar system. We need to alter our conception of space exploration, akin to the change in perspective accomplished by Copernicus, the first heliocentric thinker.
Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko (1872).
Break on through to the other side. The Flammarion woodcut, c. late 19th century.
Space exploration and theory are driven by hard science and design, which work well until engineers, astronauts and physicists confront the unknowable. The Pioneer and Voyager missions exemplified the human attempt to grapple with the unknown, but they never transcended human-centric thinking. Intended to transcend time, the spacecraft are histories of the way we saw ourselves during the early-to-mid 1970s.
The 116 images on Voyager's Golden Record
When Voyager 2 was launched to great media fanfare on August 20, 1977, it carried a message to alien civilizations, on its famous Golden Record. This record contains music contributed by countries from all over the world; 116 images; sounds such as morse code, footsteps, a horse and cart, a train; recorded greetings in 55 languages; natural sounds of a volcano, wind, and thunder; and sounds of animals such as whales, a chimpanzee, a wild dog, a tame dog, crickets, frogs, and birds.
Voyager 2's Golden Record: The Sounds of Earth
President Carter and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim included printed messages. Carter's message, dated June 16, 1977 stated:
We cast this message into the cosmos ... Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.
Voyager 2's Golden Record cover, with instructions on how to play the record and the record's origin.
CNN report on Voyager 2's 1989 encounter with Neptune.
Voyager recording of sounds of Uranus.
Voyager recording of sounds of Neptune.
In 2005, NASA reported that Voyager 1 had entered the outer limits of the heliosphere, the furthest reaches of the Sun's influence. NASA hosts a Webpage that provides weekly reports on the location and status of Voyager 1 and 2. The last contact with Pioneer 10 was in 2003, before it moved beyond the reach of our communications technology. It is headed toward the star Aldebaran, which it will reach in 2 million years. The last contact with Pioneer 11 occurred in 1995; it should reach the star Lambda Aquilae in 4 million years. These ships have gone off the map, and exist in unseen, unheard, yet tangible places in Terra Incognita, in cartographical spaces once marked Here Be Dragons.
HC SVNT DRACONES.