Now, Voyager

It is 40 years to the day since NASA’s Voyager 1 probe was launched (two weeks after Voyager 2, incidentally). Having achieved its primary objective, namely fly-bys of the gas giants, with stunning success, it is now travelling through interstellar space, as the most distant object created by humans. In 1990, Carl Sagan petitioned NASA to turn the probe’s cameras around to attempt a photograph of our planet from the edge of the solar system, resulting in the iconic ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image that adorns my wall and countless others as the ultimate memento mori:

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After this photo was taken, Voyager 1’s camera was switched off for good (Voyager 2’s cameras had been disabled the previous year). Staggeringly, however, both probes continue to send data to Earth. Remember, this is technology built in 1977 – we’re talking a processing power of significantly less than 100kb per probe, orders of magnitude less than the smartphone in your pocket. Some functions have shut down or been disabled over the years, and over the course over the next decade the remaining instruments will, one by one, quietly switch off. Eventually, the radioactive generators themselves will die, but Voyager 1 will continue to drift through space. It is expected to pass within a couple of light-years of a star in the ‘Giraffe’ constellation in about 40,000 years.

The idea of a lonely robot slowly shutting down in outer space, having faithfully carried out its duties, is strangely moving to me (it might also explain my limitless love for the film Wall-E). And that’s even before considering the famous Golden Record that lies atop both Voyager spacecraft, which attempts to encode a pocket field guide of our species for the benefit of any curious aliens that should happen upon it in the far future. No matter what becomes of our species (and in that regard I’m not particularly optimistic), this is an artefact that WILL survive, even if nothing else of us does. It says that we were here: we lived, we loved, we created.

I’ve been contemplating the cosmos for other reasons too. I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing a piece for Finchley Children’s Music Group to celebrate their 60th anniversary next year, a birthday that happens to be shared by NASA. Surely there are few more inspiring topics for young minds (indeed minds of any age) than our place in the universe? A bit of digging for suitable texts has led me to a slim volume by the remarkable poet and astronomer Rebecca Elson, who died tragically young in 1999. Entitled A Responsibility to Awe, it collates her pithy and touching poetry, much of which concerns itself with her working life as a scientist, alongside substantial extracts from her journals, which are no less poetic in expression, and heartbreakingly so as she comes to terms with her own impending death:

1 February 1999

Symptoms

Blood roaring in your ears
Like the sea

Heart thumping fast like at altitude
But no crest, no summit, no view

Nausea, swollen feet
Like pregnancy
But no child.

The commission is for treble voices plus harp (to be performed alongside Britten’s Ceremony of Carols). I’ve chosen five poems for now, though this might become six or seven; I’ll doubtless write another blog post as the project develops. Meanwhile, here’s Elson on astronomical observation:

For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:

To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.

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