By Larry Klaes
In 1972, NASA was preparing to launch the first space probes to the outer gas giant planets. These robot vehicles named Pioneer 10 and 11 would become the first human made objects to flyby Jupiter and Saturn and return priceless data on these immense worlds and some of their moons.
As a consequence of their flight paths, Pioneer 10 and 11 would be flung right out of our Solar System into the Milky Way galaxy. While neither probe would last long enough to reach another star system in a functioning condition, the Pioneers would still be our first “ambassadors” into the wider Universe by their very presence.
The chances were slim, but it was possible that some day in the far future, an alien intelligence with advanced interstellar travel capabilities might come upon one of the craft in deep space. These beings would no doubt be curious about the ancient probe’s purpose and who made it. Just as we would consider the discovery of a spacecraft from another civilization to be invaluable for increasing our knowledge about the Universe, so to might an alien species feel about finding an artifact from Earth.
As originally planned, NASA did not consider placing any kind of information on the Pioneer probes to help identify where they came from and what their mission was for. The scientists and engineers were focused on designing, building, and successfully launching the space probes on a mission that had never been done before, one that would take years to accomplish and cross hundreds of millions of miles of uncharted territory in the Solar System. Once the Pioneers were done with their prime mission, they were out of the hands of NASA and at the mercy of physics and fate. They probably thought the chances of any beings finding such a relatively small pair of vessels in such a vast island of hundreds of billions of star systems remote at best.
Just the same, though, the odds were not impossible. In addition, the fact that Pioneer 10 and 11 would be the very first human spacecraft to leave the Solar System gave the space probes and the mission an importance that required some kind of gesture as our young species made its first forays into the galaxy, no matter how small and slim it might be.
Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, two astronomers at Cornell University, took on the challenge of designing some kind of message to the stars for the Pioneer vessels. They had little room and time to accomplish their tasks, so with the help of Sagan’s second wife Linda they made a small golden plaque which depicted our Solar System’s star and major planets, our place in the Milky Way using fourteen pulsars, and a general representation of what a male and female human look like standing in front of an outline of the Pioneer probe for a size comparison.
When Pioneer 10 and 11 finally left Earth for their celestial destinations in 1972 and 1973, respectively, they carried with them a cosmic calling card, a simple yet powerful message to the Universe of who were are and why we are here.
When the next pair of outer world space probes were being made ready to follow and expand upon the paths left by the Pioneers several years later, Sagan and his colleagues prepared a more elaborate message to fellow galactic intelligences, this time on a golden record. The record, placed aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes and launched into space in the summer of 1977, held images, sounds, greetings, and music from many culture across Earth. To this day, one of the things most remembered about the Pioneer and Voyager probes are the messages they carry bolted to their frames. When their power has run out and their instruments have long since frozen from the deep cold of space, they will carry their messages of greetings to our celestial neighbors for at least one billion years should they remain untouched among the stars.
Though only one probe since the Voyagers has headed on its way out of our Solar System, the Pluto probe called New Horizons launched in 2006, others will follow the trails led by these first venturers to the stars. Carl Sagan is no longer with us to create new and even more sophisticated messages on these interstellar vessels. His absence was greatly noticed with New Horizons, where aside from the ashes of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, the probe carried essentially trinkets and other items that to beings unfamiliar with humanity might be more confused about the probe’s makers than illuminated.
The New Horizons team preferred to focus on the mission itself rather than any messages to alien beings or even our distant descendants who might find the craft as our species expands into the galaxy. While this is certainly understandable in the sense that without a successful mission there would be no probe at all to enter the wider galaxy, the fact that so few vessels have ventured into the realm beyond our Solar System and the importance of being uninvited visitors into unknown territory makes it vitally important that some kind of relevant information about ourselves are placed on each and every spacecraft sent into the Milky Way.
The importance of being in essence respectful citizens of the galaxy and giving some kind of valuable legacy to our children is a driving force in the creation of Faces From Earth. Founded by physicist Tibor Pacher, Faces From Earth is designed to bring together people from multiple fields and disciplines across human culture to more fully represent the beings and items of our world to the Universe on all future deep space missions. We invite you and those who you think may be interested in such a project to join Faces From Earth to participate in our historic emergence into the Cosmos.
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