NASA’s Voyager can carry human artifacts into the cosmos for trillions of years

Voyager 1 is the furthest man-made object from Earth. After being overtaken by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, it is now nearly 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth in interstellar space.

Both Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, carry small pieces of humanity in the form of their gold discs. This message in a bottle includes spoken greetings in 55 languages, sounds and images from nature, an album of photos and images from multiple cultures, and a written welcome message from Jimmy Carter, who was US President when the spacecraft left Earth in 1977.

Each Voyager spacecraft carries a gold disc containing two hours of sounds, music and greetings from around the world. Carl Sagan and other scientists assumed that any civilization advanced enough to discover and capture the vinyl record in space could figure out how to play it.NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Records were built to last a billion years in the vicinity of space, but in a recent analysis of the paths and dangers these explorers might face, astronomers calculated they could exist for trillions of years without even one to get near stars.

Having spent my career in religion and science, I have thought a lot about how spiritual ideas intersect with technological advances. The incredible longevity of the Voyager starship provides a uniquely tangible entry point into exploring ideas of immortality.

For many people, immortality is the eternal existence of a soul or spirit following death. It can also mean the continuation of one’s legacy in memory and records. With its Gold Record, each Voyager leaves such a legacy, but only if discovered and cherished by an extraterrestrial civilization in the distant future.

life after death

Religious beliefs about immortality are numerous and varied. Most religions provide for a postmortem career for a personal soul or spirit, and these range from eternal sojourn under the stars to reincarnation.

The ideal eternal life for many Christians and Muslims is to remain forever in God’s presence in heaven or paradise. Judaism’s teachings about what happens after death are less clear. In the Hebrew Bible, the dead are just “shadows” in a dark place called Sheol. Some rabbinic authorities believe in the resurrection of the righteous and even in the eternal status of souls.

Immortality is not limited to the individual. It can also be collective. For many Jews, the ultimate fate of the nation of Israel or its people is of paramount importance. Many Christians anticipate a future general resurrection of all who have died and the coming of the kingdom of God for believers.

Jimmy Carter, whose message and autograph are immortalized in the Golden Records, is a progressive Southern Baptist and a living example of religious hope for immortality. Now battling brain tumors and nearing centenary status, he has contemplated dying. After his diagnosis, Carter concluded in a sermon: “I didn’t care if I died or lived. … Part of my Christian faith is complete trust in life after death. So after my death I will live again.”

It is plausible to conclude that the potential of an alien witnessing the gold record and becoming aware of Carter’s identity billions of years in the future would offer him only marginal additional comfort. Carter’s knowledge of his ultimate destiny is a measure of his deep belief in his soul’s immortality. In that sense, he probably represents people of numerous faiths.

Worldly Immortality

It is little comfort to secular or non-religious people to appeal to the continued existence of a soul or spirit after one’s death. Carl Sagan, who came up with the idea for the gold records and oversaw their development, wrote of the afterlife: “I’m not aware of anything to suggest it’s anything more than wishful thinking.”

He was more saddened by the thought of missing out on important life experiences – like seeing his children grow up – than feared by the expected annihilation of his conscious self with the death of his brain.

For those like Sagan, there are other possible options for immortality. These include freezing and preserving the body for future physical resurrection, or uploading one’s consciousness and converting it into a digital form that would long outlast the brain. None of these possible paths to physical immortality have yet proven viable.

The Golden Records contain a snapshot of the earth and humanity.

Voyager and Human Legacy

Most people, whether secular or religious, want the actions they do during their lifetime to carry lasting meaning into the future as their fruitful legacy. People want to be remembered and appreciated, even appreciated. Sagan summed it up well: “To live in the hearts we leave behind is to live forever.”

With Voyagers 1 and 2 estimated to have been around for more than a trillion years, they’re about as immortal as human artifacts can get. Even before the expected sunset of the sun, when it runs out of fuel in about 5 billion years, all living species, mountains, seas and forests will have long since been wiped out. It will be as if we and all the wondrous and extravagant beauty of planet earth never existed – a devastating thought to me.

But in the distant future, the two Voyager spacecraft will still float in space, waiting to be discovered by an advanced alien civilization for whom the Golden Records messages were intended. Only these records are likely to remain as Earth’s testimony and legacy, a kind of objective immortality.

Religious and spiritual people can find solace in the belief that God or an afterlife awaits them. For the secular hoping that someone or something will remember humanity, any awake and appreciative extraterrestrials will have to suffice.

This article was originally published on The conversation by James Edward Huchingson at Florida International University. Read the original article here.

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