Postcards from the edge

Our view: Voyager I spacecraft says goodbye to the solar system, and our hopes go with it

December 19, 2010

In 1977, NASA flung a message in a bottle toward the stars. After a 10 billion-mile journey that traversed the paths of Jupiter and Saturn, the hardy little Voyager I spacecraft approached the edge of the solar system last week, poised to carry humanity's greetings to the universe beyond.

During its 33-year flight, Voyager I and its sister ship, Voyager II, captured the imagination of millions of Earthlings with the first detailed pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, along with stunning images of their mysterious moons and intricate rings. Suddenly, worlds which most people regarded as unimaginably remote seemed no more distant than the house next door — celestial neighbors in Old Sol's backyard.

As a scientific and engineering feat, Voyager made many major discoveries: the existence of volcanoes on the Jovian moon Io, for example, or the presence of a thick, gaseous atmosphere enveloping Saturn's largest moon, Titan. It revealed a previously unknown dark ring looping around giant Jupiter and found complex structures in Saturn's colorful rings that resembled strands of braided hair.

But most of all, Voyager elicited wonder at the imagination and ingenuity that allowed humankind to dispatch its mechanical marvels into space and command them to return picture-postcard records of their cosmic wanderings. If we could do that with a tiny spacecraft weighing less than a subcompact car, what couldn't we accomplish if we put our minds to it?

For all its revelations about other worlds, Voyager was always more about the possibility for a better future on Earth than in space — a hope embodied in the message the craft carried on a gold-plated disc designed to display the diversity of life and culture on our planet. Intended to played like a phonograph record — CDs hadn't been invented yet — it contained photos of Earth and its creatures, greetings from world leaders and a medley of sounds ranging from waves breaking on a shore to the music of J.S. Bach.

As the late scientist Carl Sagan noted at the time, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet." As it leaves our little corner of the universe, still sending back readings from its array of on-board instruments, let Voyager now carry that hopeful message to the ends of time and space.

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