Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pioneer & Voyager; are we sending Mixed Messages?

NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which launched in 1972 and 1973, carried this design, which was etched on a 15x23-cm gold-anodised aluminium plate. The plaque was intended to inform any extraterrestrials who might come upon it when and where the spacecraft launched (using 14 pulsars as a reference point). "There's also an image of a man and woman - perhaps the most cryptic for an extraterrestrial to understand," says Vakoch. "The response NASA got [to that image] was quite surprising to them. Some were concerned that NASA was sending pornography into space." (Illustration: NASA)

NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which launched in 1977.

Sounds and images intended to portray the diversity of life and cultures on Earth were encoded on a phonograph record made of gold-plated copper. A committee chaired by Carl Sagan assembled its contents: 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, music from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in 55 languages.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminium jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and how to play the record.

"The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilisations in interstellar space," said Sagan. "But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet." (Image: NASA)

"Like other messages that have been created for extraterrestrial audiences, the starting point of the Voyager recording was something we would expect extraterrestrials to have in common with us - and that's basic math and science," says Vakoch. (Illustration: Frank Drake)

This illustration of DNA (top left) shows how "the chemistry of Earth is tied into our genetic material", says Vakoch.

Human reproduction is also the focus of multiple Voyager images, from the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm to a developing foetus to a silhouette of a man and a pregnant woman. "There's an emphasis on reproduction in the Voyager recording, but also considerable caution in depicting nude human beings," says Vakoch. "The image [of the man and woman] nicely portrays our ambivalence about sexuality." (Illustrations: Jon Lomberg)

This image illustrates "licking, eating and drinking" (Image: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center)

There are some Voyager images that relate to health and the human body, including this X-ray of a hand, says Vakoch - "but nothing that explicitly says, 'Our bodies are frail.'"

"The Voyager recordings intentionally minimise negative aspects of [human culture]," says Vakoch. "There was an intentional decision not to include a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud [or] poverty and disease."

But long-lived alien civilisations are the ones most likely to be around to intercept our messages. "If they're older, perhaps they're also much more advanced than we are," says Vakoch. "What would we have to say that would be of interest to them?"

"I think the greatest thing we have to offer is to be honest about our current level of development, to highlight that we're not sure that we're even going to survive the next century . . . but that we have enough faith that we will continue to exist that we are making an effort to reach out to other civilisations." (Image: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center)

This illustration of vertebrate evolution shows representatives of the major vertebrate groupings, including amphibians, birds and mammals.

The image of the man and woman at top right is quite similar to the drawing that was on the Pioneer plaque, with one difference - in the Pioneer image of the early 1970s, the man is raising a hand in greeting, but in this image from a few years later, the woman is waving hello. "Just in the span of a few short years, we saw a responsiveness in NASA to [include] a more adequate representation of women by showing a woman not as passively standing next to a man but as being a member of a couple that was actively sending greetings to other worlds," says Vakoch. (Illustration: Jon Lomberg)

NASA really made an effort with Voyager to include images and sounds from around the world. "What's unique about the Voyager recording is there's really an emphasis on describing the breadth of human experience," says Vakoch. "Really it's the best portrayal of human diversity of any messages that have been sent out in space."

Still, the diversity it displays is limited – there are no images representing homosexuality, for example. "I think any interstellar message is in part a reflection of its times," he says. "It may well be that if NASA sends out another image in the future, it may include a picture of two men or two women holding hands." (Images: United Nations)

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