What Would a Modern “Golden Record” Include?

Voyager's Golden Record. Credit: NASA/JPL
Voyager's Golden Record. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now that several decades have passed since the launch of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1977, we look back on that time with a hazy sense of history and what the event meant for humanity’s ongoing odyssey. While the Voyager spacecraft were sober scientific missions, they also carried with them a hint of the deeper yearnings that lie inside humanity’s heart: the Golden Records.

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Europa Clipper Could Help Discover if Jupiter's Moon is Habitable

Artist's concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Since 1979, when the Voyager probes flew past Jupiter and its system of moons, scientists have speculated about the possibility of life within Europa. Based on planetary modeling, Europa is believed to be differentiated between a rocky and metallic core, an icy crust and mantle, and a liquid-water ocean that could be 100 to 200 km (62 to 124 mi) deep. Scientists theorize that this ocean is maintained by tidal flexing, where interaction with Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field leads to geological activity in Europa’s core and hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.

Investigating the potential habitability of Europa is the main purpose of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will launch on October 10th, 2024, and arrive around Jupiter in April 2030. However, this presents a challenge for astrobiologists since the habitability of Europa is dependent on many interrelated parameters that require collaborative investigation. In a recent paper, a team of NASA-led researchers reviewed the objectives of the Europa Clipper mission and anticipated what it could reveal regarding the moon’s interior, composition, and geology.

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NASA Uses Powerful Transmitters to Talk to Deep Space Spacecraft. Will Other Civilizations Receive Those Signals?

Artist rendition of Voyager 1 entering interstellar space. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In a recent study submitted to the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a pair of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) examine the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations intercepting outward transmissions from NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) that are aimed at five deep space spacecraft: Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, and New Horizons. Members of the public are free to track such transmissions at DSN Now, which displays real-time data of outgoing and incoming transmissions to all spacecraft at various times.

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Game of Probes: The First Probe Sent to Another Civilization Won’t Be the First to Arrive

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

If we ever detect an Extraterrestrial Civilization (ETC) and start communicating with them, the messages could take years, decades, or even centuries to travel back and forth. We face a challenging 49-minute long delay just communicating with the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, and that’s well within our Solar System. Communicating with an ETC that’s hundreds of light-years away or even further is a daunting task.

It’s even worse if we’re sending probes.

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Edward Stone Has Been the Voyagers’ Project Scientist for 50 Years. He Just Retired

Artist's concept of Voyager 1 in interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Edward Stone is retiring after 50 years as Project Scientist for the Voyager mission. The twin spacecraft revolutionized our understanding of our Solar System, and Stone was along for the ride every step of the way. Both spacecraft are still going, travelling deeper into interplanetary space, and still sending data home.

But after a long and rewarding career full of achievements and recognition, Stone is moving on.

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NASA has Figured Out How to Extend the Lives of the Voyagers Even Longer

This artist's concept depicts one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft, including its high-gain antenna. Voyager 2 is out of communications until October. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's concept depicts one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft, including its high-gain antenna. Voyager 2 is out of communications until October. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyagers 1 and 2 have the distinction of being in space for 42 years and still operating. And even though they’re 18 billion km (11 billion miles) from the Sun, they’re still valuable scientifically. But they’re running out of energy, and if NASA wants them to continue on much longer, they have some decisions to make.

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Voyager and Pioneer’s Grand Tour of the Milky Way

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

During the early 1990s, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 probes became the first robotic missions to venture beyond Neptune. In 2012 and 2018, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions went even farther by crossing the heliopause and entering interstellar space. Eventually, these probes may reach another star system, where their special cargo (the Pioneer Plaques and the Golden Records) could find their way into the hands of another species.

Which raises an important question: where might these spacecraft eventually wander? To address this, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that examined which star systems the Voyager and Pioneer probes will likely encounter as they drift through the Milky Way over the next few million years…

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Saturn is Losing its Rings, Fast. They Could be Gone Within 100 Million Years

This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

It has been almost forty years since the Voyager 1 and 2 missions visited the Saturn system. As the probes flew by the gas giant, they were able to capture some stunning, high-resolution images of the planet’s atmosphere, its many moons, and its iconic ring system. In addition, the probes also revealed that Saturn was slowly losing its rings, at a rate that would see them gone in about 100 million years.

More recently, the Cassini orbiter visited the Saturn system and spent over 12 years studying the planet, its moons and its ring system. And according to new research based on Cassini’s data, it appears that Saturn is losing its rings at the maximum rate predicted by the Voyager missions. According to the study, Saturn’s rings are being gobbled up by the gas giant at a rate that means they could be gone in less 100 million years.

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Finally! Voyager 2 is Now in Interstellar Space

NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1 exited the heliosphere in August 2012. Voyager 2 exited at a different location in November 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1 exited the heliosphere in August 2012. Voyager 2 exited at a different location in November 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On August 25th, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft accomplished something no human-made object ever had before. After exploring the Uranus, Neptune, and the outer reaches of the Solar System, the spacecraft entered interstellar space. In so doing, it effectively became the most distant object from Earth and traveled further than anyone, or anything, in history.

Well, buckle up, because according to NASA mission scientists, the Voyager 2 spacecraft recently crossed the outer edge of the heliopause – the boundary between our Solar System and the interstellar medium – and has joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space.  But unlike its sibling, the Voyager 2 spacecraft carries a working instrument that will provide the first-ever observations of the boundary that exists between the Solar System and interstellar space.

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NASA Voyager Probes Still Going Strong After 40 Years

Earth's Greatest Hits: the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.

This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.

In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 2 Mission
The launch of the Voyager 2 probe, which took place on August 20th, 1977. Credit: NASA

Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.

These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:

“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”

But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.

Each of the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 carry a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record with images and sounds from Earth. Credit: NASA

As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.

From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.

Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.

Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.

Illustration showing how NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is looking along the paths of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they journey through the solar system and into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levy (STScI)

The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:

“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”

Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.

Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a speed of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph) and covering a single AU every 126 days.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has started to transverse what JPL has dubbed as a “cosmic purgatory” between our solar system – and interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL

At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.

And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!

Further Reading: NASA