Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Voyager records - they were almost blank

I think, on occasion, of the Voyager probes. The universe is almost completely empty -- and becoming emptier as dark energy inflates our universe. The probes will likely sail, alone, for as ever as ever is. For uncountable years they will have attached to them a vestige of the most unusual LP ever pressed.

What I didn't know, until I read the account of the man who made the record, was that a NASA bureaucrat almost mounted a blank disc on the side of the probes....

The Mix Tape of the Gods - New York Times

... the astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake persuaded NASA to attach a gold-plated phonograph record to each of the Voyager spacecraft.

Containing photographs, natural sounds of Earth and 90 minutes of music from all over our world, the record was intended to preserve something of human culture beyond what an intelligent extraterrestrial, encountering the craft at some far-distant time and place, might infer from the spacecraft itself.

The information etched into the grooves of the Voyager record is expected to last at least one billion years. ..

... after the record was completed, NASA rejected it on technical grounds. Late one night in a New York sound studio, when we’d finished cutting the master, I inscribed the words, “To the makers of music — all worlds, all times,” in the “takeout grooves” next to the label. (The Voyager record is a metal version of the 33 1/3 vinyl records of the day, recorded at half-speed to double its data content. Etching an inscription between the takeout grooves was a trope I’d picked up from John Lennon.) A NASA quality-control officer checked the record against specifications and found that while the record’s size, weight, composition and magnetic properties were all in order, its blueprints made no provision for an inscription.

So the record was rejected as a nonstandard part, and the space agency prepared to replace it with a blank disc. Sagan had to persuade the NASA administrator to sign a waiver before the record could fly...

It is astonishingly unlikely that any sentient being will ever touch those records. As far as we know we are alone, and even if another technologic society develops somewhere it's hard to imagine a technology that could detect one of the long-silent Voyager probes passing through a star system (ok, nanites infesting the entire peri-solar region?). It is very likely, however, that those records will endure long after every remnant of humanity has passed on.

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