This has been quite a space week for Americans.
After Monday's stunning solar eclipse, Wednesday night PBS will air its two-hour documentary film about the two Voyager missions, launched 40 years ago. The Farthest: Voyager In Space, celebrates a technological and intellectual achievement rarely matched in history. Two small, nuclear-powered spacecraft have traveled farther than any other man-made machine and have forever changed our views of the solar system — and our place in it.
Using period music that includes Pink Floyd, real data from the missions, and amazing computer animations of the spacecraft zooming through space, the film tells the story of the many unparalleled scientific achievements of this very successful and still ongoing space mission. These include Voyager 2's fly-by of the outer planets Uranus and Neptune, and Voyager 1's role as the first craft to leave the confines of the solar system, launching humanity into the interstellar age.
The film also features interviews with many of the original and current mission team — the scientists and engineers that made the mission possible and are still working on it, collecting data and sending commands to the spacecraft. Consider that the total computing power of the Voyager spacecraft is less than that of a modern smart phone.
We now live in the era of exoplanetary astronomy, the search for other planets circling distant stars, hoping that we will find some that resemble our own. The Voyager mission took some of the first steps in this direction in our own solar system, sending images of our distant neighbors and their moons, strange worlds that sparked the imagination of millions and inspired a whole generation of space scientists and astronomers.
Onboard the spacecraft is the famous Golden Record, that carries greetings and samples of our music, cultural and scientific creations, and genetic makeup to potential intelligences out there that may encounter the spacecraft one day. Even if the chances of an actual encounter are rather slim, it was the astronomer Carl Sagan's genius to come up with this idea, an icon that brings together what we have in common and unites us as a species.
Sagan was also the one who insisted that Voyager 1 turn its camera toward Earth as it flew by Saturn, registering the smallness of our world against the vastness of space, the "pale blue dot" picture. The movie features Sagan's eloquent lines, as he reflected upon our planet, on which "everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives ... on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
From our current perspective of an overpopulated world threatened by rampant abuse and neglect, these are lines we should all be taking very seriously. For despite all the relevance to go out and explore the endless frontier, one of the essential messages of the Voyager mission — and of modern exoplanet exploration — is how precious and rare our own world is, an oasis for life in a hostile cosmos.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser