We’re about to cross the Final Frontier and enter Outer Space. This week, give or take a month or two, a man-made object will leave our Solar System for the first time. Voyager 1 is already 11.2 billion miles from Earth and still going, long after it was predicted to run out of life.
Voyager 1 set out from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1977, powered by computers with 80 kilobytes of memory. It flew past Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980, sending phenomonal pictures of the planet’s famous rings. In 1990, 4 billion miles from earth, it used some of its remaining power to turn its cameras back towards Earth and take this unique picture showing just how tiny our world is in the vastness of the solar system.
Scientists expected to lose contact with Voyager 1 and its sister ship Voyager 2 after this picture, but despite weakening signal power, information continues to be sent from both Voyagers daily, further improving our knowledge of the solar system. Roughly now (no one knows exactly when this historic event will happen, but within months for sure) Voyager 1 will leave the outer edge of the heliosphere. From there it could move on through Space for a very long time. If it doesn’t collide with anything (and there’s not much out there to hit), in about 40,000 years it should be within 9.3 trillion miles of a star known as AC+79 3888. Voyager 2 is just 9.2 billion miles from Earth, but is also on a trajectory out into Deep Space.
In his book Pale Blue Dot, Dr Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant piece which serves as an extended caption to Voyager 1’s last photo. I’ve reproduced it here – moving words to accompany an incredible picture:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”