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Voyager 1: Good idea, or asking for trouble?

Ruth Haag • Oct 2, 2013 at 1:00 PM

In 1977 I was in charge of the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum’s Planetarium. It was a pretty exciting time. The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in 1977 with a flight plan that took it by Jupiter and Saturn and then out of the solar system. Much discussion revolved around what information to send on Voyager about Earth. What would be representative and what could other intelligent life forms understand? Here is a link to the list of information that was sent on Voyager 1. http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/scenes.html

Above are pictures from NASA showing the information disk on Voyager 1.

On September 12 of this year, NASA announced that last August 25, 2012 Voyager 1 left the Solar System.

The solar system, the galaxy and the universe

One of the things that I wondered about as a child watching the first space flights, was that when the astronauts went into space no one seemed to worry about them colliding with stars. What I later learned, as all of you know, is that our sun is a star, and all of the other stars or suns that are in space in the Milky Way Galaxy are very, very far away from us. However, it is hypothesized as likely that stars other than our own sun also have planets orbiting them, and on some of these planets other intelligent life may have arisen. It is with this thought that information about our planet was sent on Voyager 1. NASA estimates that Voyager 1 will travel for 40,000 years before it comes within 1.6 light years of another star. Just as the galaxy is made up of millions of stars, the universe is made up of millions of galaxies. These galaxies are even further apart than the nearest stars.

Star Trek makes things confusing

A factor confusing our understanding of the mission of Voyager 1 is that, since the 1960s in the Star Trek TV show and following movies, the characters seem to be believably traveling around the galaxy, entering into solar systems and stopping by on Class M planets (planets that can support our type of life) aseasyaspie. Soitgetstobeabitofadownertofindoutthatallthatwecandonowislaunchasmall ship and wait 36 years for it to leave our solar system, hoping that it might encounter another solar system in the next 40,000 years.

What will happen if Voyager 1 finds another solar system and is discovered by some intelligent life? First, the finders will have to decipher the information that Voyager 1 is carrying about us. It should be pretty simple because the information is presented with keys to understand it. Also a lot of it is in picture form. This all assumes that the intelligent life that Voyager 1 finds can see and hear.

Possible outcomes

It is possible that an intelligent life form will find Voyager 1, interpret our information and then communicate with us. Of course we won’t be here, but some sort of life will be.

But, what if the finders of Voyager 1 are malevolent? I do not remember any discussion of this possible outcome in 1977. My daughter supposes that the folks at NASA were thinking that Voyager 1 would run into the intergalactic equivalent of Canadians. I always like to reassure myself that people are basically good, and therefore other intelligent beings will be basically good. Then I like to look at history and see if this is correct. Unfortunately, the first European visits to the Americas don’t support my positive outlook. There is a believable theory that the Americas were populated by some 90‐112 million natives when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. When the first white settlers arrived not quite 200 years later, the Americas were populated by only 1.5 million natives. Nearly 90% of the population had died due to smallpox, typhoid, bubonic plague, influenza, mumps, measles and whooping cough, all brought by the Europeans.

New Thoughts about Native Americans

Possible Voyager Outcomes already explored by science fiction

There are at least two adverse outcomes that have already been presented. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Voyager 6 comes back calling itself V’Ger. It has had help from a race of machines that interpreted its mission to learn all that it can and return to the Creator. Upon return, V’Ger it wanted to merge with its Creator. Luckily, Captain Willard Decker agreed to merge with V’Ger, a new being was formed, and mankind was saved.

What about the Borg? The Borg were created in 1989 on the series, Star Trek the Next Generation. They are a civilization that have combined their biological bodies with cybernetic prosthetics, becoming cybernetic organism, cyborgs. They are in a Collective and think as one. They pursue perfection. They take over other species and assimilate them into the Collective. Borg are pretty efficient entities. This is unless, of course, you would rather remain independent. Will Voyager give a map to such a species to come right back to earth and assimilate us?

The NASA view, or the Borg view?

The people who planned the Voyager mission must have believed that any intelligent beings would be as interested in us as we are in them, with no malevolence. What do you think? 

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