Time Capsule in the Stars: Exploring Voyager 1’s Golden Record

Artist concept of the Voyager probe in space. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Voyager 1 probe had successfully entered interstellar space; the first human-made object to do so. As the probe continues forth into the vast unknown, it carries with it a special collection of “welcome signs” for any life forms it may encounter. Known as the Voyager Golden Record, this 12” gold plated copper disc was designed to operate similarly to a phonograph record. The disc is filled with sounds and images from Earth. Carefully selected by a committee led by Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University, the Voyager Golden Record includes the following:

  • Sounds from nature, including thunder and wind, and animals such as whales and birds
  • 55 spoken greetings in various Earth dialects, both ancient and modern
  • Printed messages from US President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim
  • A 90-minute collection of music from various cultures
  • 115 images from Earth

Both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes carry a copy of the Voyager Golden Record. The record was designed to be played at a speed of 16 2/3 rotations per minute; half the speed of traditional vinyl records. Not to leave the greeting without an instruction manual, NASA meticulously crafted a cover for the record, using a collection of images and binary code to provide the proper setup needed to play the record that would transcend any language barrier. A stylus is included with the record to allow for it to be played.

A replica of the Voyager Golden Record cover, available at Edmund Scientifics. The record’s cover utilizes images and binary arithmetic to decipher instructions for playing the record.

The upper left portion of the record’s cover shows visual directions for how to properly play the record, including placement of the stylus to the record, playing from the outside of the record to the inside, and the speed at which to play the record. The lower left portion features a pulsar map, previously included on plaques for Voyager’s predecessors, the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes. The map shows the position of the sun in relation to 14 different pulsars. The upper right portion shows how to extrapolate the images from the disc, using the signal, which decodes to a series of 512 vertical lines. It also includes an image of a circle, the first image used to verify that the images have been decoded correctly. The time scale with which to use as reference is the final piece of the puzzle, showcased in the image on the bottom right. Instead of relying on seconds and minutes (derived from Earth’s rotation), the code on the Golden Record relies on the fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom (approximately 0,70 billionths of a second) as the preferred time scale.

While the likelihood of encountering intelligent life along Voyager 1’s current trajectory may be minimal (even equated by Dr. Sagan as tossing a “bottle into the cosmic ocean”), the Golden Record serves as a conscientious time capsule of tiny blue dot that is the planet Earth.

Voyager Fun Facts:

  • Despite their numerical ordering, Voyager 1 was actually launched 16 days AFTER Voyager 2. Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, with Voyager 1 launching September 5. Voyager 1’s trajectory varied from Voyager 2, with Voyager 1 planned to reach Jupiter and Saturn first.
  • While the Voyager program only consisted of two probes, the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture uses a fictionalized continuation of the program (a NASA probe designated Voyager 6) as a main plot point.
  • Traveling at the speed of light, a signal sent from Earth takes approximately 17 hours to reach Voyager 1 and 14 hours to reach Voyager 2.
  • Voyager 1’s power supply is very limited, and will have to shut down all instrument operation by the year 2025.

 Source: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

Carving the Milky Way: How Bathsheba Grossman Mixes Science and Art in Laser Etching Designs

One’s first encounter with the Milky Way Galaxy Star Crystal may leave almost as much wonder as seeing NASA’s images of the galaxy itself; a bright, swirling mass of tiny bright dots hovering in a vacuum, or in this case a block of solid crystal.

Image: bathsheba.com

California artist Bathsheba Grossman has made a career for herself by creating a powerful marriage of art and science in her pieces; often utilizing construction techniques such as 3D printing to create intricate geometrical patterns and designs for sculptures, jewelry and other objects. In addition, Bathsheba has been creating brilliant three-dimensional images based on scientific imagery carved into crystal blocks. The images that are etched are referred to as laser-induced-damage images, or LIDI for short.

LIDI is a fascinating process that (as the name implies) cause small breaks in the glass with the use of a laser. The conical laser used is positioned with the proper focal depth to cause a tiny fracture within the crystal structure, leaving the rest of the block around the point of breakage intact. Each fracture, or “point”, measures approximately one tenth of a millimeter in size.

Like most of Bathsheba’s works, the process starts in the design phase. After much trial and error, Bathsheba now uses her own self-written CAD software to create a map of her image. Each “point” is carefully planned out. Several points may exist on one two-dimensional plane of the design. Several more on the next plane, and the next, and so on. Each point must be spaced far enough apart from one another to prevent the crystal from breaking, while being close enough to one another to give the look of the desired three-dimensional line or shape. The particular image of the Milky Way is derived images captured by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

After the hundreds of thousands of points are laid out in the CAD image, it is time to carve. A high-frequency Nd:YAG laser is used in this process, as a lower-frequency laser will create points that may appear fuzzy when viewed. The laser and crystal block remain stationary during the carving process; a mirror reflects the laser’s beam to properly place the laser’s focus to the correct location in the crystal. Points are created by pulsing the laser on and off once the mirror has been properly repositioned. This process is repeated several hundred thousand times in order to place every point along the structure. The image is carved from the rearmost plane to the frontmost, ensuring that previously carved points do not get in the way of placing new points. The end result is an impressive facsimile of the 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, suspended within the clear crystal structure.

In addition to the Milky Way, Bathsheda has also created LIDI crystal designs for a map of stars around our solar system, a double helix of DNA, the molecule for caffeine, the Calabi-Yau manifold from string theory and many others.

More of Bathsheba’s incredible work can be seen at her website.

Twilight Lunar & Planetary Parade

Mark the three evenings of September 7th, 8th and 9th on your calendar to watch a fascinating interplay of the crescent Moon and two bright planets in the southwestern sky after sunset. And later in the month, another planet joins the parade. All of this will provide yet another example of the fact that the cosmic drama unfolding nightly overhead is alive with exciting action.
Continue reading

The Sky’s Finest Galaxy!

The word "galaxy" is entrenched in the popular mind—everyone’s heard of these remote star cities, but with the exception of stargazers few have ever seen one. Or so they think. One of them has been readily visible to anyone who’s ever looked up at the summer sky on a dark clear night. It’s none other than our home galaxy, the Milky Way! And the best time of the year to see and experience it is late August into September.
Continue reading

Observing Sunspots

SunspotsIf you’ve ever wanted to see sunspots, now’s the time! Our "Daytime Star" is at its long anticipated sunspot maximum this year, with its visible surface peppered much of the time with dark spots of various sizes. Watching them develop and move across the face of the Sun from day-to-day as it slowly rotates is a fascinating activity. But extreme caution is required in doing so due to the overwhelming solar radiance.
Continue reading

Star-Testing Your Telescope

Many sophisticated methods of evaluating the optical quality of a telescope have been developed over the years. But there’s one very simple, convenient, and sensitive test that’s easy to perform any clear night. Known as the extrafocal image test, it uses an actual star as the test source.
Continue reading

Three Plus One = Four Planets At Dusk!

A dramatic trio of planets play tag with each other after sunset low in the west-northwestern sky during the last week of this month–along with a lone lovely planet in the southeastern one all month long. Here’s an opportunity to see the two innermost and fastest-moving planets bunched together with the largest of all such worlds, and across the evening sky the most beautiful planet in the entire heavens.
Continue reading

Monster Telescopes!

For decades after its dedication in 1948, the famed 200-inch Hale reflecting telescope at Palomar inCaliforniareigned supreme as the world’s largest telescope. (Russiahad built a somewhat bigger one but it never performed as hoped.)  Then came the twin 400-inch scopes at the Keck Observatory inHawaii, twice as big as Hale. But now, two instruments are in the works that will absolutely dwarf all those that have come before them!

Continue reading

Comet PanSTARRS Alert!

Skimming along the western horizon some 30 to 45 minutes after sunset in March, a bright new comet will be making its appearance in our evening sky.  Predicted to be easily visible even to the unaided eye—and sprouting a noticeable tale pointing northward— it promises to be quite a spectacular sight in binoculars and wide-field telescopes.

Continue reading