NEW YORK (
) -- The most important news event this week actually occurred over a year ago. And it may well have been the most overlooked and misunderstood achievement since some mankind-looking creature first stumbled out of Africa.
No, it didn't happen on Wall Street. It didn't even happen on this planet.
Some months ago, a spaceship launched from Earth in 1977 and still transmitting data, carrying a message about its origins to any intelligent life that it may encounter, sent back proof that it had quietly passed out of the solar system.
This past week, scientists published that decoded data and the results seem conclusive. The spacecraft, Voyager 1, became the first manmade device to leave our solar system around Aug. 25, 2012.
To put that journey in perspective, in 1977, one month before the launch of Voyager 1, Elvis Presley died. Jimmy Carter began his term as president in January of that year. John Travolta's disco sensation
Saturday Night Fever
was big box office, along with the first
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The first of
Apple II personal computers went on sale that year. The company's first Macintosh wouldn't come along for another seven years; the iPod didn't appear until 2001 -- Voyager was 24 years into its journey at that point, already well past the orbit of Pluto.
During its mission, Voyager itself contributed to the culture, making history with its observations of the planets and their moons. In 1990, when it was only about 4 billion miles away, Voyager 1 turned around and took a series of photographs that form this
now iconic composite portrait
of our solar system.
Astronomer Carl Sagan dubbed this image the "pale blue dot" and wrote the following equally famous description.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
From Voyager 1's current position, now some 12 billion miles away -- the most distant manmade object -- it is safe to say Earth is no longer visible. Our sun looks pretty much like any other star in the sky.
The spacecraft is one of a pair, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, intended to explore the planets in our solar system. Launched the same year, Voyager 2 has a different trajectory than Voyager 1, but it, too, is still functioning and headed outside the solar system.
Voyager 1 was intended to study two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Reprogramming from Earth repeatedly extended its original mission and its original life projection of five years. Voyager has been transmitting more or less every day for 36 years.