“It sure doesn’t look like a starship.”
Those were the words of space artist Jon Lomberg in 1977 as we sat looking out across the swamplands of Cape Canaveral at a slender, silvery missile huddled against a launch gantry. On top of the military rocket was a robotic spacecraft called Voyager 2, which was about to set off on a journey of exploration across our solar system and eventually across the galaxy.
Jon was part of a very small team spearheaded by famous astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan, who had put together a golden record that was attached to the side of Voyager 2 and its twin Voyager 1, to act as a message from Earth to any alien civilizations who might find the spacecraft wandering among the stars in the distant future. The phonograph record (CDs and iPhones had not been invented yet) contains more than an hour of music from many cultures, people saying hello in more than 50 languages, including whales (we don’t know what the whales were really saying) and more than 100 photographs that had been digitally encoded onto the disc.
Jon Lomberg designed the cover diagram which shows instructions on how to play the disc, how to interpret the signal, and a star map showing the position of our sun in the galaxy.
The Voyagers were only the 3rd and 4th spacecraft to escape the gravity of the sun and destined to wander indefinitely among the stars of the Milky Way. They followed two other twins called Pioneer 10 and 11. All four robots were able to make interstellar journeys because they flew past the giant planet Jupiter.
If a spacecraft flies past the massive planet in just the right way, it will get a gravity assist that accelerates it, providing the extra velocity it needs to be literally thrown right out of the solar system. The Voyagers would get a second kick from Saturn, with Voyager 2 going on to Uranus and Neptune, making them the fastest objects that had ever sent from Earth.
A billion years
Once they reach interstellar space, there is almost nothing out there to corrode them, so they will be preserved for about a billion years, possibly more. A billion years — that’s a thousand million years.