A Romantic '70s Icon Exits the Solar System With a Song

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- 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.

Source: NASA

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 Star Wars movie and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The first of Apple's ( AAPL) 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.

Source: NASA

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 Mission

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.

Its data functions get by on only 68 kilobytes of memory, state of the art in 1977. By comparison, the cheaper Apple iPhone comes with 16 gigabytes of memory (a gigabyte is 1 million kilobytes), roughly 240,000 times more powerful.

In 1977, when Voyager was launched, scientists didn't even know how big the solar system was. They suspected the border, the place where the solar magnetic field ends, to lie a few hundred million miles out. As the craft traveled, they reevaluated their theories and began to suspect the border was much, much farther -- between 10 billion and 16 billion miles.

Over the past year, scientists have collected several pieces of evidence to indicate Voyager's passage out of the solar system. But for final proof, they needed to know that the density of plasma surrounding the spacecraft had increased. The instrument that measures plasma density directly failed long ago, so scientists had to wait for the opportunity to measure it another way. That came in April, when bursts of radio waves rattled the plasma, an oscillation picked up by the spacecraft's antenna. The frequency of that vibration indicated a higher-density plasma -- the evidence scientists needed.

At NASA's press conference, the scientists played the realization of Voyager's data as a set of recorded sounds, noisy tones that rise noticeably as the craft enters interstellar space.

At some 12 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1 has yet to reach the Oort Cloud -- a collection of debris at our solar system's doorstep. By some definitions, the Oort Cloud marks the end of the solar system, so some debate about whether Voyager is or is not outside still exists. But undeniably, it has crossed a boundary, reaching a new milestone in space exploration.

By 2025, its power source is expected to be completely exhausted. It will live out its remaining transmitting years sending lonely signals in an unending trek across interstellar space. Once dead, it will likely reach proximity of a distant star in about 40,000 years, after which it will continue to orbit the center of the galaxy.

The Musical Alien

Partly as a public relations measure, NASA included aboard the Voyager 1 probe a gold-plated record encoded with information for any intelligent aliens who may discover it -- a message in a bottle on the interstellar ocean. The gold-plated disc has printed on it a simple map indicating our position in the universe using 14 known pulsars of varying frequencies as landmarks and diagramed instructions for how to play back the information inscribed in the record, which included a combination of photos, sounds, human greetings in various languages and samples of music.

This being the U.S. of 1970s, the 27 music samples on the record are decidedly biased in favor Western classical music of the 18th to early 19th century. That's the stuff we used to impress people in those days: orchestras, choirs, opera singers, elaborate polyphony and highly structured forms.

Seven classical music excerpts are included and of those, only Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring lies outside of 100-year period defined by the careers of J.S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Two Bach recordings, two Beethoven recordings and one Mozart aria are all included.

Jazz is underrepresented, with only one recording included, Melancholy Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. Only one rock 'n' roll recording is listed as well, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry. While those are all culturally important, one might wonder how they represent us as a species.

On the other hand, the inclusion of one blues recording, Dark Is the Night, by Blind Willie Johnson, seems a stroke of genius. As I've said elsewhere, this little miracle of a wordless song probably represents the human race as well or better than everything else on this disc.

One example of Indian classical music, the raga, Jaat Kahan Ho, sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar; one example of Javanese court gamelan; one example of Japanese shakuhachi flute. Those three, and all the rest of the recordings here, would fall under what we today in the U.S. would term "World Music," meaning the folk traditions and classical traditions of the non-Western or Native American cultures.

What all that indicates is that we are still growing in our understanding of one another. Someday relatively soon, I suppose, the term World Music will seem terribly quaint, uninformed, non-P.C., because it fails to differentiate between these widely disparate styles. It fails to see the nuance, the individuality, personality and wonder in each culture.

Even here, in a gold-plated record intended to bring our species together, to show it in its best light, there are elements of nationalism and tribalism, hints of "us" and "them." Looking at that "pale blue dot," considering Sagan's words and the vastness of the distances that Voyager 1 has traveled, it is harder to see a "them" here on Earth.

Will any species like ourselves ever find Voyager 1 floating between the stars and play back the encoded information? Not likely. A famous Star Trek film imagined a future human space mission encountering an evolved Voyager spacecraft (calling itself "V'Ger"), sentient and longing for its creator.

That film may be closer to the point than its writers knew. At this moment, we are the alien to our 1977 selves, encountering this vessel as an old-Earth time capsule.

Maybe through this milestone, the rugged, enduring human achievement symbolized by this little antiquated spacecraft, bridging the gap of space and time, we are gaining a surprisingly clearer view of ourselves and a glimpse of our true potential.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park

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