The Voyager Golden Records: A Message From Humanity to the Unknown

Christopher McFadden

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 include a set of phonographic records called "The Voyager Golden Records". Their inclusion was in the hope that intelligent life could learn about us and life on Earth. Both Voyager 1 and 2 have no set target destination in mind but Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light years of the Star Gliese 445 in around 40,000 years. What future observers of the Voyager Golden Records will think of them and their contents is anyone's guess but let's hope they like their mix-tape from the past.

The Voyager Golden Records: A Message From Humanity to the Unknown

[Image Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Library]

Voyager 1 is currently the farthest human-made object from Earth. This humble piece of technology has now reached interstellar space. The message it carries is a bold message to the void of space. Let's just hope they have ears and eyes to read and hear it.

"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." - President Jimmy Carter

Time capsules in space

The Voyager Golden Records are not unique to the voyager craft. Pioneers 10 and 11 both carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin. They will undoubtedly be of great interest to spacefarers in the distant future. Building on these examples NASA decided to be a bit more ambitious with Voyagers 1 and 2. A time capsule of a kind to communicate our story to our civilizations or future human travelers. Although the 30.5 cm gold-plate records are pretty simple but the message they carry is far from basic. This disk contains a variety of media intended to portray the diversity of life on Earth.

Since voyager left our solar system in the late 1990s they have been speeding through empty space. It will take nearly forty thousand years before Voyager 1 will reach another planetary system.

"The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet." - Carl Sagan

What's on the Voyager Golden Records?

The esteemed and greatly missed Carl Sagan oversaw the committee who decided on the content. The specially selected NASA committee gathered together 115 images plus a variety of natural sounds such as surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales and other animals. They also decided to add musical selections from different cultures around the globe from different eras. The Voyager Golden Records also have recordings of various spoken greetings from mankind in fifty-five languages. The first message being in Akkadian (The language of Sumer 6000 years ago) and ends in Wu (a modern Chinese dialect). It also has written messages from President Carter and the then U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Each of the records is encased in a protective jacket of aluminium as well as a cartridge and needle to play them.

You'll be pleased to hear the Voyager Golden Records come with instructions. These are in a symbolic language to explain the origin of the craft and how to play the strange disks to aliens or future humans. All of the image content is encoded in an analog with audio records designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute. This mixtape from the past includes sounds of the Earth followed by an eclectic mix of 90-minute selection of music from Eastern and Western cultures.

The disks also have a simple pulsar map and hydrogen molecule on them. This is something common with the Pioneer plaques.

Instruction manual for the Voyager Golden Records

As previously mentioned the Voyager Golden Recordscome with their own instructions. Future observers will find them conveniently placed in the upper left-hand corner of the cover diagram. It shows the observer where to put the stylus to play the record from the beginning. Around this image is binary arithmetic denoting the correct rotation time to play it, 3.6 seconds. Playtime is expressed in 0.7 billionths of a second which is the time period associated with the fundamental transition of hydrogen atoms.

The Voyager Golden Records: A Message From Humanity to the Unknown

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Now that's what I call music

If you can find it you can get your very own copy of a CD that replicates the content of the record or just "check it out" on SoundCloud. If you're interested you can read the book about their creation. Murmurs of Earth was first published in 1978 and reissued in 1992. Sadly this book is out of print but you'll probably be able to get your hands on a second hand one somewhere like Amazon.

The voyager golden records have an interesting musical selection on them. They feature works from Bach to Chuck Berry. In fact, the addition of "Johnny B Goode" was somewhat controversial at the time. The addition of rock music was thought to be too adolescent at the time. "There are a lot of adolescents on the planet." was Carl Sagan's cutting retort. Carl also wanted to include the Beatles "Here comes the sun" by the record label EMI, which held the copyright, and declined permission for its inclusion.

There is even an hour long recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow. Druyan thought of many different topics during the recording including Earth's history, civilizations and love. We wonder what other "secret" messages Druyan included, quite an honor.

The nudity controversy

NASA received severe criticism over including nudity on the pioneer plaques. This prevented the agency from authorising Sagan and his team to include photographs of naked people on the records. Simple line drawing silhouettes of a couple were added instead. The records do, however, contain a diagram of vertebrate evolution which has some portrayals of naked anatomically correct images of a man and woman.

Controversy aside, the records are not just humans "showing off". You can argue that they are a strong message to the universe. We are here, we can send stuff into space, come and find us! Whether extraterrestrials will use the information for good or ill only time will tell.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Library

SEE ALSO: Astronauts Manage to Lose a Piece of the International Space Station

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board