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The Surprise Gift NASA left on the Voyager probes in 1977

When NASA launched the Voyager probes in 1977, they included a special gift for future travelers – and intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The Voyager Program

Only a handful of humanity’s projects can claim to have contributed as significantly to our knowledge pool as the famous Voyager program by NASA. This program singlehandedly contains two of five of the most distant man-made objects in space. In addition to this already momentous achievement, each of the Voyager probes contains a unique gift to anything (or anyone) that might encounter either of them in the vastness of the Interstellar Medium (ISM): a 30-cm gold-plated copper disk containing various messages and works demonstrating the diversity of culture and life on Earth.

Artist's concept of the Voyager probe

Artist’s concept of the Voyager probe

The Golden Record

This disk, which is flamboyantly referred to as The Golden Record, was ambitiously intended to serve not only as a time capsule of sorts to inform future spacefarers of the beauty of Earth’s past, but also as a message to intelligent extraterrestrial life containing the basics of understanding human beings. The team engraved the cover with images such as the location of the Sun relative to the known directions of 14 pulsars (neutron stars), with their respective frequencies encoded in binary.

The Golden Record as it appears on the Voyager probes

The Golden Record as it appears on the Voyager probes.

With the technology available in 1977, when the Voyager probes were launched, memory storage capacity was not what it is today. Scientists on the project had to ensure that the message included on the record was as comprehensive and easy to decode as possible. One side of the record contains the audio message, which is much more straightforward to access, while the other contains the significantly more complicated-to-decode video message. The engraving includes basic instructions on how to operate the record, including how to position an included stylus with which to read the record. Instructions for accessing the image data on the record include how to break up the waveform data and decode it to display the first image, a circle, which is also engraved on the cover image to demonstrate the success of the calibration process. Another diagram on the cover image denotes the two lowest states of the hydrogen atom (the most abundant element in the universe), with the time taken for the atom to transition from one state to the other being the fundamental unit of time for other cover diagrams and encoded messages in the record.

One of the Voyager probes with the Golden Record installed on its side.

One of the Voyager probes. Notice the Golden Record embedded on its side.

The audio part of the record includes the musical works of notable historical figures such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, etc., and songs from different parts of the world, such as a Pygmy girls’ initiation song from Zaire. Other sounds on the record ranged from natural sounds such as volcanoes, thunder, and rain, to those made by crickets, a train, a tractor, etc. The record also includes greetings in over 50 languages, a one-hour recording of life signs such as heartbeat and brainwave sounds, and an introductory greeting from then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Further, the video part of the message includes 116 color and black-and-white images (including the calibration circle on the cover), among which were mathematical and physical unit definitions, the solar system and its parameters, the solar spectrum, chemical definitions, DNA structure, human anatomy, etc.

To boldly go…

The Voyager program is one of the hallmarks of humanity’s achievements in space exploration and is made even more human by the inclusion of The Golden Record, whose contents will remain readable for up to a whopping one billion years! Arguably, this could be the only remaining evidence of humanity’s existence once we have long gone extinct. No matter how grim humanity’s future may be (or appear to be), we can rest easy knowing that out there is immortalized evidence of human beings at their best and the mark we will have left on a rapidly evolving universe.

NASA collects meticulous, real-time data of the Voyager probes, including their current estimated distance from the Earth, and their positions relative to the solar system.

Denis Wachira
Denis Wachira
Systems Engineer at Omarichet Space

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