NASA’s Message-In-A-Bottle: The Interstellar Constellation
The picture above represents one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever done.
Here’s a short thought experiment and story:
Somewhere one day a person, who may or may not be somewhat like you, might be looking through their telescope.
They might see something strange, approaching the planet.
They contact the authorities.
A mission is conceived to rendezvous with the object.
Astronauts carefully seal the mysterious asteroid in a large container and bring it back to the planet for scientists to study.
The whole world would be tense, waiting for news to break of what this strange thing is.
Its enigmatic shape gives it away as almost certainly not being natural.
Finally a nervous person approaches the media and crowds outside the lab.
With a shaking hand the person wipes sweat from their brow. They look up briefly before speaking, as if half expecting something to be there.
“The asteroid… is not from the solar system. It hurtled here at great speeds from a distant star.
It’s old. We’re not sure yet how old, but it’s clearly been a long time since it was home.
Inside the asteroid is a golden disc. We’ve managed to remove the disc. It has markings… and sounds etched into it.”
It was a little longer before the contents of the disc were deciphered. The scientists realized that the strange 14-branches of lines on the disc were binary. Yes or no. The simplest language in the universe, and a mathematical one.
A language that might be used to communicate with cosmic neighbors.
Across countless years and an unimaginable gulf of empty darkness, something was telling us, “Yes, yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, no…”
But yes to what? No to what?
The media exploded when an astronomer announced the binary series and the lengths of the branches corresponded exactly to the fingerprint-like beacons of 14 pulsars.
Around the world researchers mapped out where the center of the constellation should be, where the center of the 14 branches from their perspective night sky was.
They knew almost immediately but didn’t want to believe.
The star in the center of the constellation, the place where this message came from…
A news anchor looked into a camera, a somber look on their face:
“Astronomers have triangulated the location of the alien spacecraft. It came from a distant star which you can see in your telescopes. It’s the large red one.
It’s pretty to us but was a very different sort of star when this message was sent to us. Our space telescopes have confirmed that there’s a rocky planet in orbit around the star… there’s no atmosphere on it now as the star’s growth has boiled away any atmosphere there might have been.
Could those aliens still be alive somehow? Did they survive the incineration of their home?
As much as we ask these questions all we’ve got are the recordings they left on a sturdy golden record.
When played we hear strange sounds in an alien tongue. Deciphered, the recording reads,
A few decades ago, NASA, working with Dr. Carl Sagan compiled a golden record to go aboard the Voyager spacecrafts.
Voyager 1 launched from Earth in 1977. It left the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013.
In 1 billion years, that golden record will still be readable and the sounds engraved thereon still readable.
NASA used the unique, lighthouse-like rhythms of specific pulsars to generate a map, a sort of interstellar constellation that, no matter where in the Milky Way you are, will always point to our Sun at the center.
It’s a beautiful message. For a billion years the sounds of children speaking across the universe will survive. For a billion years the sounds of a heartbeat of someone in love will be carried from star to star.
That heartbeat, that love, will flow across the cosmos for a billion years.
For a billion years our interstellar message-in-a-bottle will drift among the current of starlight, perhaps until one day a person, who may or may not be somewhat like you, might look through their telescope and see a strange asteroid drifting towards their planet…
Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together.
At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. That is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time… . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful… . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
Ann Druyan, Author and producer of space and science shows (including Cosmos), on Carl Sagan, her husband of 15 years.
“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic 'ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” -Carl Sagan
The Golden Record, Voyager I (The furthest human made object from Earth), 1977.