Space: A lap of loneliness – Voyager I goes interstellar

Voyager of lonliness

As the Voyager Golden Record reaches interstellar space, the (western) world’s jaw drops.  It’s almost like we forgot.  But there’s always time for science fiction to lap itself.

JUST 8 DAYS ON FROM THE 36TH ANNIVERSARY OF ITS LAUNCH, NASA ANNOUNCED THAT THE VOYAGER 1 SPACECRAFT DRIFTED INTO OUR UNKNOWN AROUND ABOUT AUGUST LAST YEAR.  It’s a morass of semantic distinctions, but the craft originally launched to take pictures of Saturn and Jupiter and the outer solar system has entered interstellar space.  That is, it’s left the solar system and now doesn’t have to do whatever our sun’s electromagnetic influence tells it to do.

It’s official (although NASA have suggested that before, and still aren’t 100%) that Voyager’s entered the yawning chasm of everything and nothing as it winds its way towards the next star.  It’s cold in space, cold and lonely.  A far as we know.   The idea of that blend of 20th century metals and plastics floating through the freezing vacuum is monumental.  It’s beyond comprehension.

So it’s no wonder that the news emerged to a rapturous reception.  Not horror that the human race has dispatched a map into space announcing ‘hi, here we are, this is what we sound like and these are our exploitable resources’ to the cosmos, but that this archaic piece of kit is still transmitting, still going. When it was compared to mobile phone reception and 1970s cars, the inevitable memes arrived online.

There are plenty of Star Trek jokes bobbing around too.  It was fortuitous that in 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture used the fictional Voyager 6 iteration of the probe as its plot device.  In a film far more sophisticated in its science fiction than other Trek films (it was helmed by the same man who directed The Day the Earth Stood Still after all), it spawned a cultural sci-fi trope that’s survived as well as the first Voyager probe.  Of course, it’s also a twist on the prodigal son – this time it’s the return to the prodigal father.   The story is simple: it’s entropy that leads to the simplified name V’Ger.  It also hangs upon that bloody map again, but this time it’s misinterpreted by another species rather than used as an invasion chart.

Still, as far as we know, Voyager hasn’t fallen through a worm-hole yet and possibly/maybe met/created any cyborg races.  Neither do we know if Voyager’s been scanned, monitored, poured over, probed or duplicated.  The best guess is that it will take 40,000 years or so to get to another solar system, in the constellation of Camelopardalis, at its current speed of 17 kilometres per second.  It’s a solar system that’s slowly moving towards ours.

A better guess than that is that thousands of years before that, its isotope power source will run down and the furthest satellite of Earth will die.  If its power lasts, V’Ger is just floating through space with two things to wait for.  Losing contact with its maker and finding the warmth of its new sun.  More than likely, travellers from Earth hundreds of years in the future will pass it after the former and before the latter.  I wonder if they’ll notice her.

After all, there’s two ways to look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture.   If Star Fleet had been a little more diligent prior to the 23rd century, you’d have thought they’d pick up the craft and package it up for the New Smithsonian.  Or, If they couldn’t find it – surely worth a scan – if it had already fallen into a wormhole, wouldn’t that be something to investigate?  It may well have helped it’s namesake USS Voyager many years later.

Far from being a black hole in the script, perhaps that’s exactly what will happen.  While Voyager’s achievement has brought out a rapturous round of applause this week, perhaps humans in 200 years time will be far too distracted by their toys.  Voyager’s landmark today will be lost with Miley Cyrus, and the omission of dance music from the Mercury Music Prize as the captains of tomorrow still wait for the Morrissey biography.

When the age of major space exploration begins at the start of the new age of  sail, which it will,  there will still be science fiction.  Humans will still reflect contemporary fears through alternate realities of the one they know, just as their forbears had predicted their science fact for the same purpose.  But at that time science fiction can expect to enter the age of consolidation.  There will be a chance to reflect back on speculative fiction to its earliest days.

Whether Voyager is there or not, explorers arriving in Camelopardalis or any of our neighbouring constellation will beat human’s earliest calls.  They’ll look on the light of Earth and see the planet of tens of thousands of years before.  And if they wait, they’ll pick up the first television broadcasts and crucially, around 41,063AD or so, they’ll see the first transmissions of Doctor Who episodes long since binned by the BBC.  A lot of science fiction will lap itself, that’s part of the deal.

“We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours” as President Carter printed message says alongside Voyager’s Golden record.

It’s not clear if he was talking about Doctor Who.

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