Humanity’s Mixtape: The Golden Record on Voyager

In 1977, NASA launched the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 on perhaps the most ambitious space mission of the 20th century. The primary goal of the Voyager program was to study the outer planets and their moons; therefore, it took advantage of a rare planetary alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune that occurs every 176 years and planned a grand tour of the solar system.

Throughout the 1980s, the Voyager probes encountered the gas and ice giants, discovered new moons around them, and sent back data along the way. But beyond the prime objective, both Voyager 1 and 2 were built with an even more ambitious goal in mind. As they continued to survive through their initial mission, the probes were set to embark upon an even more adventurous journey which was to explore the boundaries of our solar system and to keep sailing out into interstellar space. Here on, the trajectories of the probes separated them, sending Voyager 1 north from the solar system’s plane and Voyager 2 south.

In 2021, 44 years after the launch, Voyager remains to be an ongoing program and both probes communicate back to Earth daily. Voyager 1 and 2 are soaring in interstellar space roughly 20 billion kilometers from Earth and Voyager 1 holds the title of being the farthest man-made object in space. Voyager is undoubtedly a remarkable space mission in light of its accomplishments and the ambition with which it was put into action. But possibly the most extraordinary element about it is the golden disc attached to the side of it.

Creating the Record

With our ever-growing curiosity and fascination for the extra-terrestrial, the thought was taken into account that if Voyager was destined to wander through our galaxy, could it someday encounter aliens? If it were to, can we conceivably send out a message and establish any sort of communication with them? Though the chances seemed extremely unlikely, the prospect was equally exciting. With this expectation acting as a driving force, NASA decided to attach a message to both the probes.

On a preceding mission, gold-plated plaques were attached to space probes Pioneer 10 and 11 which were engraved with symbols to signify their origin. Astronomer Frank Drake thought of replacing the plaque with a vinyl so that more content could be stored on it. Thus, the idea of the Golden record was conceptualised. The Golden Record on Voyager 1 and 2 is a phonograph record containing numerous greetings, sounds, music, and images. Each disc is constructed of gold-plated copper and encased in a protective aluminium cover, with a stylus.

The contents of the golden record were selected by a committee chaired by astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan was an ardent believer of extra-terrestrial life and had worked on the Pioneer plaque previously. The technological limitations of the ’70s forced them to encapsulate the entire story of humanity in 2 hours. In order to capture the true essence of our culture, it was made sure that the content selected was diverse. Members of the committee put in their effort for 6 hard months, to compile a variety of content, select the music, language, images, and sounds that would best represent all humankind.

What is on the record?

The cover of the record is engraved with symbols, trying to explain its origin and how to play it. Through the observations made, scientists believe that the laws of physics and math are common throughout the universe. Hence it seemed to be the only logical method to communicate with the aliens. In the corner, a symbol representing the hydrogen atom was etched and as it is the most abundant element in the cosmos, an intelligent lifeform would know its properties. Using its property of the time period associated with a fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom, a binary code was created to help decode the other etchings on the disc. Math and physics seemed to be the best language for communication but they cannot be used to best represent our culture. For this purpose, the record contains 90 mins of music and 30 mins of other sounds, greetings, and encoded images.

The record begins with human greetings narrated in 55 languages. Offering salutations to the receiver of the message, asking about their well-being, welcoming them to visit us, and stating that we mean peace. Apart from the greetings, a bunch of sounds and noises were recorded. Sounds of fire, wind, thundering, earthquake, and rain were added to represent the raw nature of the Earth. Recordings of a heartbeat, the crying of a baby, sound of a kiss were yet another attempt to capture our feelings and purity. Lastly, sounds of tools, a train, and lift-off of the Saturn V rocket were placed to signify technological advancement.

Aliens may or may not understand the concept of music, nevertheless a wide array of music from Indian ragas to Beethoven are put into the vinyl. Perhaps, there is no other present more appropriate than music that has the ability to convey a spectrum of human emotions that could not be explained otherwise.

116 images were added to the record in analog form. The initial few include images of Earth and a few of its neighbouring planets. Images of the DNA structure, cell wall, human anatomy, and animals try to explain the composition, formation, and diversity of life on Earth. Apart from these informational images, numerous mundane images of people and places were added to depict the mundane lives of the Earthlings. The abstractness of certain images left it for the viewer to draw their own meaning out of it.

A message from the then president of the USA Jimmy Carter added to the record said, "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

Will the record ever establish communication?

The Voyager probes are not heading in the direction of any particular exoplanet. Voyager 1 will pass by a star system in the next 40,000 years. So, the golden record is quite like a bottled message thrown into the ocean in hopes that someone may find its message someday. But Voyager is sailing into an even vast ocean of interstellar space. Hence, the chances of some advanced space-faring life discovering it is infinitesimal, and who’s to say that even if it is discovered, aliens would be able to decode and understand our message. They may not even be able to hear the sound frequency or see the same colours as us.

Then why create and send the record? Voyager’s batteries are running low and in the next 5 or 10 years they will completely die out after which Voyager will no longer be able to operate the scientific instruments onboard and send its data back to earth. At this point, the golden record will remain the only driving purpose of Voyager. Out in interstellar space, it is unlikely to collide with any space rocks and isn’t subjected to erosion. Therefore, through those recordings, a part of us will continue to travel along with Voyager.

The word ‘culture’ is often used in relation to a specific community or a country, but we rarely look beyond and think about humanity as a whole. When it came to sending a message to another life-form, the committee responsible for choosing the contents made sure that every song, image, and sound on it well represented the nature of life on Earth. The record acts as a time capsule and in the distant future, it can probably be the only surviving evidence of human existence. Hopefully, someday it can get the chance of being played and to sing the stories of the culture of Earth.

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