Far beyond Pluto, a single, shiny gold disc glides through the ethers of empty space. Inscribed on it is a medley of peculiar markings that aren’t immediately discernible, like a robot font or some other sophisticated descendant of cave drawings. It floats on, a little beacon of hope from Earth: Maybe someone, somewhere, will encounter it and decipher its hidden message.
When the Voyager missions launched in 1977, NASA knew they wanted to include a note to any meandering space travelers. Cryptic plaques had been sent aboard other spacecraft before, but they didn’t indicate much on them. There were our time and our place in the solar system. There were also a man and woman, whose shapes were determined using a computerized analysis of the average person.
Like the plaque-bearing Pioneer missions before them, the Voyagers were headed for deep space. But this time, the message would be better, more complete — and more complex.
NASA turned back to its trusty cosmic compatriot, famed astronomer Carl Sagan, who compiled the above graphic for the Pioneer missions. But to properly encapsulate a whole planet, his committee had to get creative.
The finished product: A golden record jammed with sights and sounds from Earth. Each 12-inch phonograph disc is made of copper, plated with gold, and nestled in a protective aluminum jacket along with a cartridge and needle. Symbolic instructions show how to play the record, and a uranium-sourced radioactive clock plated to its surface measures how long Voyager has been in space.
As our own Heather D’Angelo put it when she saw a golden record replica at the secret Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “It also has the dual function of looking really cool.”
Visually, the record contains more than a hundred images from our planet in analog form, from a plain old circle to a diagram of conception. There are more physical details of Earth, like its structure and continental drift, and a huge gamut of its inhabitants, including sketches of bushmen and a family portrait.
The Tetons and The Snake River , by Ansel Adams, one of 115 images stored on the Voyager Golden Record.
The scenes come with an accompanying soundtrack, too. Fifty-five languages are represented, from ancient Akkadian to the modern Chinese dialect Wu, with greetings like a Bengali “Hello!” to the more chatty Amoyan “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.”
Best of all, there’s a 90-minute playlist of Eastern and Western musical accomplishments. Though the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system around the start of the ‘90s, they won’t encounter another planetary system for another 40,000 years.
Till then, you can enjoy this mixtape of Earth sounds old and new: