Voyager 1: Good idea, or asking for trouble?

Ruth Haag
Oct 1, 2013


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.

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? 



thinkagain's picture

If some alien race were to find and decipher our interstellar message in a bottle, why would they assume it had to have an intelligent creator? Oh, you mean because it's too complex to have just assembled itself...hmm I see.

Licorice Schtick

Seems our writer may have just jumped the shark.

Raoul Duke

Just remember, this IS bat country...

The General

Ohhhh Jim I got a "bat" for ya....

Don Lee

Pssst ... Star Trek isn't real.
Seriously, I'm betting on the statistical likelihood of alien life being either too far behind us technologically to be a threat, or too far ahead of us to even be interested -- and that assumes they're capable of getting here in anything like a human timescale. It also assumes they won't be so different from us we could be standing next to one another and not even realize it.
The evil alien conquerors in the more straightforward science fiction were a stand-in, or allegory if you prefer the ten-dollar word, for whatever other humans we were afraid of at the time. So the Klingons were the Soviet Russians, etc. (notable exception: H.G. Wells's Martians are widely thought to be the British author's criticism of British behavior in Africa and Asia.) Science fiction, like the Wild West tales, are more about the time and place in which it is written than about the time and place it presents.
So no, I 'm not worried about what Voyager drags in.


I agree


I would love to see what FINDS Voyager I, especially that lovely gold record with all the "hailing" things on it that someone would have to have the education to play in the on board player. If it survived a reentry burn that is. But can you imagine what they might think of us as somewhat co existant neighbors who sent the things we did? Oh, yes, just great. I love Lucy, etc. At the time, such wonderful items as examples of what we were then to what we have become? I am not sure even the most advanced civilizations would WANT to meet us now that we have "evolved". We worry about what "vegar" might bring in. Perhaps we should worry about what we have become since it left and what kind of people we are now some 30+ years later since it left. We are definitely a different race, not at all like what we sent out in that thing. Are we sure visitors are ready for US? I don't think so. I really don't.


It doesn't matter whether aliens are friendly or unfriendly unless they've developed FTL (faster than light) travel. And if they HAVE developed FTL, they'll be here any minute now, about 40,000 years before Voyager could possibly show up on their doorstep. Therefore it ALSO doesn't matter what we put aboard Voyager. Nice idea, nice "memorial" to humanity (at least the way we might WISH humanity would be), but meaningless where anything else is concerned.


Thank you Sam for injecting a little reality. Any species advanced enough to pose a threat would also be capable of finding us without Voyager. We've been emitting evidence of our presence in the form of RF energy for 75 years - it travels at the speed of light and had a half century or better head start on Voyager. Ruth is supposed to have a sufficient background in science, and the title of her column implies enough grounding in basic logic, to be aware of this. So much for that.

Don Lee

Current thinking among people who actually know about such stuff is that our TV and radio signals are so spread out beyond a certain distance (partway to the nearest star) they can't even be made out against the background radio noise. Alien civilizations watching "I Love Lucy" and showing up to tell we've got some 'splainin' to do? Not betting on it.


Not really. Consider that we are still getting useful signals from Voyager, transmitted with 30 year old technology with very little power from outside the solar system, and then consider the sensing/receiving capabilities of a species that has mastered interstellar travel. Any species with the ability to get to us would have been close enough by now to "hear" us. We haven't left the solar system yet and we already have radio telescopes listening for others out there; if we thought of it, so have they.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

I'll keep the dream alive a little bit longer!

Real Life Warp (FTL) Research:

Real Life Teleportation Research:


Not to worry, compared to the vastness of the universe, Voyager I wouldn't even equate to something the size of an atomic particle.

1. Ya need an interstellar space faring race.

2. They gotta find it first. The odds of which are literally "astronomical."

This was largely a publicity stunt.

To my knowledge, no message was encoded on the next probe headed out of the Solar System - New Horizons.

Stop It

A crap load of abstract messages. Heh. Why have they grayed out some explicit msgs? We live on this small speck of dust and expect someone from that far away to understand it when we don't understand EACH OTHER, here...

Stop It

“Arrogance diminishes wisdom”