Remember 1977? Disco music, episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” the swearing-in of President Jimmy Carter and the death of Elvis? There were also the launches of the unmanned space probes Voyager 1 and 2 during that year.
The two American spacecraft, controlled out of Southern California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were sent on first of their kind missions to explore our solar system’s outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The information the Voyagers sent back to Earth were stunning, from the discovery of active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io, to clocking wind speeds in Saturn’s upper atmosphere in excess of a 1,000 miles an hour.
Voyager 1 and 2 left those worlds behind years ago, but they’re still exploring and still making history. Destined never to return to Earth, Voyager 1 will soon become the first spacecraft to leave our solar system and fly into interstellar space. That’s the vast expanse of space between the stars in our galaxy. Voyager 2, on a different flight trajectory, will also soon leave our stellar system. The two craft will then spend billions of years orbiting the center of our galaxy, perhaps even surviving Earth itself as the Sun, near the end of its own lifespan, engulfs our world in the distant future. The former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the chief project scientist associated with the Voyager program, Dr. Ed Stone says, “we’re essentially in a region where no spacecraft has ever been before and we’re getting glimpses, a preview, if you will, of what’s outside.”
But in case an alien civilization ever finds one of the Voyager spacecraft long after we’re gone, NASA’s been kind enough to send a kind of message in a bottle. Produced by the late Carl Sagan, it’s in the form of 12-inch, gold-plated copper disc bolted to each Voyager probe. The discs are packed with audio and images of Earth, as well as greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages. “These are tiny, silent ambassadors that will be roaming the Milky Way galaxy forever,” says Dr. Stone.
Here’s more from our conversation: