Just over three years ago this month an epic event in the history of mankind quietly passed with little fanfare. In this non-stop news era, I find it remarkable that such scant attention was given to something that personally made me pause in wonder and reflect in awe.
On or about August 25, 2012 the Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first manmade object to leave our Solar system. The little ship successfully withstood what scientists call “termination shock”—the area where particles from the Sun begin to slow and clash with matter from deep space. It passed through the vast “heliosheath”—the expanse where the solar wind piles up as it presses outward against interstellar matter, and then crossed the “heliopause”—the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar wind, where the pressure of both are in balance.
Now Voyager 1 is sailing free through the Milky Way. It is more than 12 billion miles from home. The distance is 121 AUs (Astronomical Units) away; that is 121 times the separation between the Earth and the Sun. It takes 17 hours for a radio signal from Voyager to reach receivers here on the home planet. “It’s utterly astonishing that this fragile artifact based on 1970s technology can signal its presence from this immense distance,” remarked Astronomer Sir Martin Rees.
Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 to study the outer planets, but then just kept going. Talk about deep space: Even though it is traveling at 45 km/s (100,000 mph), it will not approach another star for nearly 40,000 years. In a billion years it will still be in our galaxy.
Professor Edward Stone, the chief scientist of the mission compared the achievement of Voyager to circumnavigating the globe for the first time, and to Armstrong’s step on the moon. Renowned planetary scientist Fred Taylor was just a young post-doc on the team back in ’77. “The idea that the spacecraft would exit the Solar System altogether was so way out, figuratively as well as literally, that we didn’t even discuss it then,” he remarked. “Although I suppose we knew it would happen someday,” he admits, adding, “Forty-three years later, that day has arrived, and Voyager is still finding new frontiers.”
I was reminded of Voyager’s breakthrough achievement twice this summer. The first time was when we saw those first photos of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft on July 14. Yeah, it didn’t look like much… drab like the moon… and Pluto was downgraded from a real planet to a dwarf planet a few years ago… but I got all excited. Think about it—it took New Horizon 9.5 years traveling 3 billion miles just to get up close with Pluto. And we got to see the actual surface of the last major piece of real estate in our Solar System.
Then I was reminded of Voyager again a week later, when on July 20 (the 46th anniversary of the moon landing) Russian billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million dollars to launch a new search for extra-terrestrial life. With the famous physicist Stephen Hawking by his side, Milner described a plan to harness the world’s most powerful telescopes and computers to scan the Milky Way and a hundred neighboring galaxies in unprecedented ways. “There is no bigger question,” said Hawking in his computer-generated voice. “We are intelligent, we are alive, we must know.”
If you are a space geek like me, you can’t get enough of this stuff. And if you’ve read up on the subject you will know that Milner’s initiative, dubbed “Breakthrough Listen”, stands on the shoulders of Carl Sagan’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project of the 1980s. You will also know that SETI was not the first foray into this area. The aforementioned Voyager, out there in interstellar space, is carrying something called “The Golden Record”. Indulge me for a few moments as I describe it.
The Golden Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Sagan and a NASA Committee assembled 115 such sounds and images, like the surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, greetings in 55 languages, musical selections, and messages from President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. At the time Sagan said, “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.”
That last line is really what I want to talk about. What does Voyager and SETI and now Breakthrough Listen really mean? Why spend all the time and money? Don’t we have enough problems here on Earth? What’s the point?
President Carter, in his Voyager message, also spoke of hope. This is what he said: “We cast this message into the cosmos… Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”
Reaching for the stars is first about gratitude and humility. The ancient Psalmist declared more than two thousand years ago, and none has said it better: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place—What are we humans that You are mindful of us? We mortals, that you take note of us? Yet you made us little less than divine; adorned with glory and majesty. You gave us dominion over your handiwork, laying the world at our feet....” (Psalm 8)
Exploring the cosmos is second, a constant reminder of how fragile and precious and interdependent the home planet really is. Soviet cosmonaut Vitali Sevastyanov wrote, “Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. What do I see? I replied. Half a word to the left; half a world to the right; I can see it all. The Earth is so small.” His colleague Aleksi Leanov added, “The Earth was small, light blue, and touchingly alone; our home that must be defended like a holy relic.” Sigmund Jan, a German astronaut, recounts that “only when I saw the Earth from space did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generation.”
Remember that the space age began as a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now look at the cooperation between countries. We can’t even get to the International Space Station anymore without hitching a ride with the Russians. Perhaps in one sense that is fitting. The last frontier is truly an international one. Saudi astronaut Bin Salman said it best: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one earth.”
The aforementioned Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire (and yes he is Jewish), is a theoretical physicist turned global investor with a Wharton MBA. He was named for Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, who orbited the Earth seven months before Milner was born. His telescopes and his team are assembled from every corner of the world.
I cannot argue that the fortune Milner is spending on his grand, quixotic venture might not be more urgently needed elsewhere. But in elevating us physically and spiritually to a new perspective on our planet, by reminding us of our common humanity and our highest humanity… to me, something sacred is going on.
When we blow the shofar three times, we will then recite three times, “hayom harat olam”; “this day the world is born.” Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. It is 5776 years old, give or take a few billion years. How better to celebrate the birth of the world, and the miracle of its life sustaining endurance, than by embracing the perspective bequeathed to us by the astronauts and the scientists. How better to celebrate the birth of the world by safeguarding the home planet even as we reach beyond it. How better to affirm our humanity by joining hands in the peaceful exploration of the greater universe of which we part, and are destined to discover.
And finally, allow me to conclude with the thought that the vast expanse of the universe and its exploration inspires the vast expanse of our imagination. Lovers of science fiction already know this to be true. Space invites us to dream again… to dream big.
I know that the chances of intelligent life being discovered anywhere else are totally remote. In fact, many have quipped that we are still looking for it here. But could you imagine if one day we did make contact?
And even if we don’t, think about this: Maybe our time on this planet is limited. Maybe the earth’s ability to sustain us will fail, even long before our sun, like all stars, will flare and die. Could it be that our survival lies beyond this planet?
And think about this: it could be that humanity will long be gone, extinct as the dinosaurs. But the tiny messengers, Pioneer 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons will continue to tote little pieces of our history throughout the universe. And maybe after drifting for millions or billions of years, one of our messages-in-a-bottle will be discovered, and mark the most exciting event in another civilization’s history.
Happy Birthday, world. And Shanah Tovah.