Happy Halloween! This has nothing to do with Halloween.
In 1977, in response to a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets of our solar system, NASA launched space probes Voyager 1 and 2 to tour the outer planets and transmit photographs back to Earth. In that capacity the Voyagers were spectacularly successful, sending tens of thousands of images of planets and moons back to Earth via radio. Both probes passed beyond the orbit of Pluto in the late 1980s, and they continue on toward interstellar space traveling at approximately 37,000 mph (almost 60,000 kph). They continue to transmit data back to Earth, and are expected to do so until around 2025, when their radioisotope thermoelectric generators will be exhausted, and unable to power any instruments.
In 40,000 years or so, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, and at around the same time Voyager 2 will be within 1.7 light-years of the star Ross 248. If either of these systems happen to be home to an advanced alien civilization, there’s a chance they will detect and retrieve one of our plucky nuclear space robots.
In anticipation of the possibility of such proxy contact, NASA mission designers affixed a message from humanity to the side of each probe in the form of a phonograph record. These gold-plated copper records each contain an identical compilation of sounds and music from all over the Earth, as well as analog-encoded images. In the event that one of the probes is ever discovered by an intelligent alien species, the included instructions will hopefully allow them to decode the sounds and sights of our civilization.
We at Damn Interesting have put together an online simulation of what an alien civilization might see and hear upon decoding one of the records, assuming that their seeing and hearing abilities are similar to our own. For the best experience, a laptop or desktop screen size is recommended. We share these sounds and images under the “fair use” exception to copyright law due to the historical significance of the media. You can launch the interactive now, or read on for more background and technical detail.
This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.
On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.
Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.
The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.
Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.
The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.
The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.
On 10 January 1709, pioneering weather observer William Derham recorded an historic event outside his home near London. He examined his thermometer in the frigid morning air and jotted an entry into his meticulous meteorological log. The prior weeks had been typical for an English winter, but overnight an oppressive cold had lodged itself over the Kingdom. As far as Derham was aware, London had never experienced so few millimeters of mercury as it did that morning: -12º C.
The remarkable cold lingered in Europe for weeks. Lakes, rivers, and the sea froze over, and the soil solidified a meter deep. The cold cracked open trees, crushed the life out of livestock huddling in stables, and made travel a treacherous undertaking. It was the coldest winter in the past 500 years, and one of the coldest moments in a larger global phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Likely causes include volcanic activity, oceanic currents, and/or reforestation due to Black-Death-induced population decline. It is nearly certain, however, that it has something to do with the unusually low number of sunspots that appeared at that time, a phenomenon referred to as the Maunder minimum.
We now know that such solar minima correlate quite closely with colder-than-normal temperatures on Earth, but science has yet to ascertain exactly why. Solar maximums, on the other hand, have historically had little noteworthy impact on the Earth apart from extra-splendid auroral displays. But thanks to our modern, electrified, interconnected society these previously innocuous events could cause catastrophic economic and social damage in the coming decades.
On the 5th of February 1974, NASA’s plucky Mariner 10 space probe zipped past the planet Venus at over 18,000 miles per hour. Mission scientists took advantage of the opportunity to snap some revealing photos of our sister planet, but the primary purpose of the Venus flyby was to accelerate the probe towards the enigmatic Mercury, a body which had yet to be visited by any Earthly device. The event constituted the first ever gravitational slingshot, successfully sending Mariner 10 to grope the surface of Mercury using its array of sensitive instruments. This validation of the gravity-assist technique put the entire solar system within the practical reach of humanity’s probes, and it was used with spectacular success a few years later as Voyagers 1 and 2 toured the outer planets at a brisk 34,000 miles per hour.
One of the more intriguing theories to fall out of the early gravity-assist research was a hypothetical spacecraft called the Cycler, a vehicle which could utilize gravity to cycle between two bodies indefinitely— Earth and Mars, for instance— with little or no fuel consumption. Even before the complex orbital mathematics were within the grasp of science, tinkerers speculated that a small fleet of Cyclers might one day provide regular bus service to Mars, toting men and equipment to and from the Red Planet every few months. Though this interplanetary ferry may sound a bit like perpetual-motion poppycock, one of the concept’s chief designers and proponents is a man who is intimately familiar with aggressive-yet-successful outer-space endeavors: scientist/astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin.
Throughout the Second World War, the town of Hillersleben, Germany was home to one of the Third Reich’s most crucial weapons research centers. At a sprawling facility nestled in the forested hills, a contingent of 150 engineers and physicists developed and evaluated all manner of experimental weapons, a substantial number of which were ultimately adopted by the Nazi war machine.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the scientists at Hillersleben were forced to abandon an assortment of death-bringing innovations at various stages of completion. Among these were a rocket-assisted artillery shell which had 50% more range than standard artillery, a 600mm mortar which fired one-ton self-propelled projectiles for up to three and a half miles, a modified Tiger tank which could fire 760-pound rockets up to six miles, and a chain-like projectile made up of small, linked rockets with a range of 100 miles. But the military masterminds’ most sinister ambitions were embodied in their behemoth Sonnengewehr, or “Sun Gun” project—an orbital weapon intended to exact fiery punishment upon the enemies of the Third Reich, forever establishing their dominance over the genetically inferior Untermenschen of the Earth.
Since childhood Dr. Robert Lang has practiced origami. It was the convergence of his intensely creative mind and this ancient Japanese tradition that gave rise to his unique style of origami, which he developed into a renewed art and ultimately a science of practical application.
His intricate paper insect creations were a departure from the standard boats and cranes that have long been the tradition of origami. Over time his works grew more complex, featuring hundreds of folds and multiple pieces of paper, such as a full-scale cuckoo clock. Between his efforts to earn a PhD in applied physics, his job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory, his eighty technical papers, and his forty-six patents in optoelectronics and lasers, he somehow found time to implement and evolve a number of original origami designs.
The practicality of his scientific research began to influence his origami designs, until the line between the two began to blur. He participated in a project at EASi Engineering to develop complicated crease patterns for airbag folding designs. Lang also worked to design a mesh wire heart support to be folded and implanted in congestive heart failure patients; once inside, it would expand, protecting the heart. His most ambitious project to date, however, is shared with a team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with whom he has developed a space telescope – one that is forty times larger than the Hubble and collapsible for space travel through a series of precise origami folds.
Owing to radio’s aptitude in transporting information, our planet is endlessly peppered by man-made low-frequency radiation. Phone conversations, computer data, text messages, radar echoes, sitcoms, and morning DJ chatter are all electromagnetically belched in every direction at the speed of light— including straight up into outer space.
Purveyors of science fiction are fond of exploring the ramifications of this radio leakage, suggesting that someday an advanced alien race might materialize to befriend, enslave, or destroy humanity after a little electromagnetic eavesdropping from afar. Indeed, if there happen to be any radio-savvy civilizations within 114 light years of Earth— an area which encompasses roughly fifteen thousand stars— humanity’s earliest meaningful transmissions will have already reached them.
Similar speculation appears in science non-fiction, such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, which strains its giant radio ears for extraterrestrial signals. When consulting the wisdom of probability, one finds that the universe ought to be teeming with technology-toting aliens; but aside from a couple of interesting-but-inconclusive detections, no discernibly intelligent patterns have ever been observed by Earth’s space-listening instruments. One might surmise that the conspicuous silence is “evidence of absence,” but such a conclusion might be a bit premature under the circumstances.