Spirit is nothing

Debatable sentiment, at best mediocrely conveyed.

You guys should wait until we lose contact with Voyager 1.

I have always found that thinking about the Voyager 1 and 2 and Pioneer 10 and 11 probes triggers powerful emotions in me and I've never been able to fully explain them or properly pin them down in text. The closest I've come is Lonely Photographer which I'll concede is almost as sophomoric as Munroe's effort. Let's cover Voyager 1 in particular.

Voyager 1 has been travelling away from the Earth for longer than most of the people reading this have been alive. It is expected to continue operating until the mid-to-late 2020s. It is the most distant man-made object from Earth. It takes our radio signals more than 15 hours to reach it, and it takes another 15 hours for Voyager's pathetically weak responses to return to us. That number is constantly increasing. But we will listen to those signals, for as long as there is still enough power to send them. This is because Voyager 1 is the only thing we have out that far. It is the human race's third of only five attempts to date to reach interstellar space. It is where no one and nothing has ever gone before. It is a space mission which will last a cumulative total of nearly fifty years.

Spirit is not far away. Spirit is not lonely. Spirit is local. We know precisely where it is. One day, we will visit Spirit in person, pick it up, brush off its dust and bring it home.

Voyager 1 is not coming home. Ever. It will outlive us. Once it stops transmitting, we will lose track of it, and we will never be able to find it again. Then, if we want to send another mission out that far, we will have to wait another half-century. It is the most important and most significant thing that humans have ever done, because it represents the width of the physical footprint that humans have made on the universe.

Discussion (16)

2010-01-31 01:14:28 by Yan:

The difference is that voyager knew it was not coming back, spirit did not.

2010-01-31 01:26:16 by dotwaffle:

Beware of Klingons, and Star Trek I too.

2010-01-31 05:37:06 by commonsenseoracle:

Umm - we have a light cone you know... We've been annoying the folks at alpha century for years with our bullshit. There's a great sci fi novel by Greg Egan called Quarantine. Interdimensional aliens wrap our solar system in an event horizon because when we looked up into the sky we kept collapsing the wave function and wiping out infinities of possibilities and the various inhabitants of those possibilities (the ability to collapse the wave function is postulated as something not necesasry to observation but as something that just happens to be coded into our dna). So not only are we annoying with respect to the light that we emit - but for all the light that has reached us - over zillions of years from zillions of light years away... we end up ruining all their shit via spooky quantum action at a distance. Sometimes a little isolation is a good thing...

2010-01-31 10:38:39 by qntm:

You know the difference between fiction and reality, right? And you understand what I meant by "physical" footprint?

2010-01-31 12:45:12 by Baughn:

How long is Voyager going to keep sending? Is it possible (not plausible, just physically possible) that it'll hang on for long enough that we can go get it?

2010-01-31 13:14:31 by Pstryder:

I really liked Lonely Photographer. It makes me sad to anthropomorphize Voyager too.

2010-01-31 14:34:33 by Mick:

We are not going to be able to 'get' Voyager. First of all, we would need a probe that could accelerate to an extremely fast velocity, target a single, tiny object, and then *turn around*. This is not going to happen for a long, long time. More importantly, though, Voyager was never ment to come home. Sam is right- it is never coming back. One day, it'll be all that's left of us.

2010-01-31 15:04:31 by Thrack:

Baughn, possibly but it would be very expensive. Assuming Voyager 1 moves at a constant speed (17,078 m/s) and any craft that is sent out to collect it is also moving at a constant speed the two craft will be able to intersect in 15 years and 164.2 AU away if the craft sent to collect Voyager 1 is traveling at 51,937 m/s. 51,937 meters per second is very fast, 3 times faster than the Voyager 1. So, although possible, it would be very expensive and difficult. Additionally, in order for them to return they must then decelerate. (It would not be necessary to accelerate to return as they could simply fall back towards the Sun.) Of course, as Mick says (who posted while I was making these calculations), Voyager 1 was not intended to return. By the way Mick, it should not be terribly difficult to locate Voyager 1 because it would still be creating signals which was within Baughn's criteria.

2010-02-01 07:40:53 by JustBob:

I like this post, agree with the sentiment. But... "Footprint that humans have made on the universe" - it's zero. Although technically (at the moment) it must in fact be a number slightly greater than zero, it would be so close to zero that on any normal scale (i.e. anything less than a million decimal places) it's zero. (And in the long term even voyager 1 will probably be destroyed, sucked into some Sun or black hole, or hit by some piece of interstellar rock.) On the scale of the universe mankind and all it's actions to date are completely insignificant. So for me this kind of destroyed your argument slightly. "Galaxy" may have been a better word. And although most of what commensensoracle said was irrelevant, hist point about our RF pollution of the near-by stars is valid, and if someone out there is listening (highly unlikely, and technically difficult due to reasons I won't go intO) then this "non-physical" signal has become physical, in terms of alien memory storage. It's still a footprint - it's still a recording of "us". Still, a good post.

2010-02-01 09:14:32 by qntm:

A number slightly greater than zero is not zero. Also, we don't measure this stuff as a *percentage*. Nobody is listening to us.

2010-02-01 11:29:41 by Pete:

I think Voyager would be pretty unlucky to fall into a star or black hole or get hit by a rock. There is a great deal more empty space than there are obstacles to get in the way, even if you count associated gravity wells as part of the obstacle. Plus, voyager had(has) the velocity to escape the suns gravity well, its likely that its would just slingshot around any significant one it encounters, a direct hit on another object (star, rock, planet, large bulbous eye) would be vanishingly unlikely. It might, ultimately, disintegrate, cosmic rays and dust might corrupt its structure enough that any tidal forces exerted on it might bust it up a bit. But those are long timescales. I understand the concept of our "physical footprint". Its not something for other to observe, it just how far we have managed to put a physical object, right? We have a light cone, and now we have a artefact cone. You never know, it might be the biggest physical foot print so far. Maybe, we're the first.

2010-02-03 18:50:09 by EJL:

Having just watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos*, this all seems very important now. Seriously humans, stop squabbling & actually *do* something to the universe. *Highly recommended. If you haven't watched it, you haven't *lived*.

2010-02-05 10:31:24 by Fjord:

@EJL: RE: "Cosmos" <http://www.symphonyofscience.com/> They're in reverse chronological order of creation, start from the bottom and work up. This has been my new favorite thing all week.

2010-02-05 21:12:51 by Sterling:

Well, you inspired me. Enjoy. :D caligari-87.deviantart.com/art/tribute-to-XKCD-2-153009515

2010-02-06 03:50:33 by Naleh:

Voyager was in fact the first thing I thought of after reading that xkcd. Poor, lonely Voyager...

2010-02-07 01:03:57 by David:

Sterling, that was brilliant. You should put it in the xkcdsw (xkcd slightly worse) thread on the xkcd forums.

This discussion is closed.