What is the Voyager Gold Record? Will the Voyager spacecraft ever return to Earth? And why should humans be concerned if it ever does?

NASA’s Voyager 1 was launched September 5th 1977, two weeks after the launch of Voyager 2. Why was Voyager 1 launched second? It had to do with the orbit of the planets and the difference in the routes of the two missions.

Taking a faster route and exiting the asteroid belt earlier, Voyager 1 overtook it’s twin on December 15 1977 to explore both the Jovian and the Saturnalian systems.

Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to ever travel beyond the interstellar space limits of our solar system by crossing the heliopause, the boundary created by the farthest points of our Solar System where the Sun’s solar winds no longer reach.

It has achieved incredible feats throughout its very long mission by discovering different phenomena such as new moons, active volcanoes on other planets, provided information on the asteroid belt and a load of data about our solar system in general.

Incredibly, the mission continues to date, with Voyager 1 and 2 both still sending data back to Earth. Imagine a vehicle built before 1977, never serviced, no parts replaced, the battery continuing to run all these years later. It’s one of the truly remarkable achievements of human engineering.

It is considered the most distant human-made object, given that it is around 14 billion miles away from earth and over 151 astronomical units farther from the sun. Due to this mind-blowing distance, signals from this fantastic creation now take over 20 hours to reach Earth.

Together with Voyager 2, these objects, which some scientists consider the greatest human inventions of all time, have managed to return five billion bits of scientific data; equivalent to more than 7000 music compact discs.

All of this with technology predates modern computers, modern batteries, fuel injection but not fluffy dice which were invented in the 1950s.  The mission didn’t actually include fluffy dice sadly, but it did include a gold-plated 12 inch phonograph record.

The Voyager Gold Records

The message of humanity is included on a Gold Record aboard both Voyager spacecraft and includes a range of data, information and sounds from Earth.

Extensive thought and debate went into the selection of the contents.

Carl Sagan was selected to chair a committee that oversaw the selection of the contents and how to display them.

The contents of the Voyager Gold Record included 115 images from a diverse representation of humanity, and were included to show our place in space, our culture, history and accomplishments.

Here is an overview of the images included on the Voyager Gold Record:

  • The Sun and Solar system
  • Human anatomy, sexual organs and anatomical presentations
  • DNA, cell division and special evolution
  • Numbers, simple maths and basic formulas
  • Charts of size and comparisons between objects such as a human baby vs adults
  • Fauna and flora from around the world
  • Famous monuments, buildings and architectural designs
  • Musicians, music and instruments
  • A range of different cultures and images of people
  • A representation of the periodic table
  • A stellar road map for finding a path back to Earth
Voyager Gold Record
Voyager Gold Record

Also included on the Voyager Gold Record are audio recordings designed for play back at 16 and 2/3 revolutions per minute.

If aliens find this record at some distant point in the future and play it back to slowly, we’ll all have very deep and fearsome sounding voices. Should they play it too fast, we’ll sound like chipmunks.

Amongst the many recordings are spoken greetings from each of the languages of Earth, a range of sounds from nature and our cities and a diverse selection of music from all around the world.

It is expected that Voyager 1 and 2 will begin powering down onboard electric components around 2025, and some functionality will cease to work.

What does that mean?

In simple terms, this will be the beginning of the end for the Voyager spacecraft.

The mission to explore our Solar System and then head out into open space will have been completed. The bulk of what they were meant to achieve has been carried out and exceeded.

So what more can they do?

Once power is fully exhausted and their final transmissions received, the intrepid explorers will have only one final duty.

To continue on into the dark void of space, emissaries of the human species, carrying friendly greetings and knowledge of the planet Earth.

Can NASA instruct Voyager 1 to return to earth?

Voyager 1 is traveling out beyond our solar system at an incredible speed of over 35,000 miles per hour and has used the gravity of planets like Jupiter and Saturn to increase its velocity and augment its propulsion.

The craft does not have much fuel left and it’s battery is limited. It does not have the capacity to turn reduce it’s velocity, let alone to change direction and return home. 

Voyager was not also equipped with the kind of engine that would let it return home, it’s a one way mission for these craft.

However there are at least two scenarios that would allow the Voyager craft to one day return to Earth.

The first is a space mission that uses advanced technology to go out and bring the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft home. Should we elect this option, it would be a Herculean undertaking, perhaps larger than any before in the history of humanity.

However with our collectivity will, future technologies and a long enough timeframe, it is possible we could send out robotic craft to collect these vessels and bring them home.

The question then would be why would we want to do this?

Really there is only one answer, it would be a change of direction for our space programs, a desire to keep our place in the Universe hidden, and this implies that we have new knowledge or theories about serious risks in making contact with extraterrestrial species.

Sci-Fi films aside, it is generally believed that a sufficiently advanced species capable of making contact with us, or even visiting us, would almost certainly be peaceful.

Of course, this is a theory, and theories can change.  

The second way that the Voyager missions could return to Earth is, amusingly, by aliens bringing them back to us.

After all, we’ve sent them out with a Gold Record detailing our existence, history, accomplishments and culture, and we’ve left instructions for how to find a way back to us by identifying our Sun and planets in our Galaxy.

So let’s hope that should Voyager ever make its way home to us, it’s a friendly alien species returning our lost property, rather than angry aliens, upset about all the space rubbish we’ve left floating around for their spaceships to crash into.

Maybe they will just be coming to ask us how the heck they are meant to play the Gold Record we sent them?

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