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Voyager 2NASA Space probe

Lego planets book

He’s on the floor in the school hall, throwing one of those tantrums that earn you sympathetic looks from other parents, secretly relieved that it’s your kid not theirs.

We’re at a book fayre after school and my little boy is in Reception year, though he’s always had a real gift for reading. He’s upset because I won’t buy him a shiny rubber that looks identical to one he’s already got at home.

I tell him that we came to look at the books - so it’s a book or nothing. Fine then, he says, he’ll have nothing. I buy a book. One that’s in arm’s reach and not too expensive. For two weeks he won’t look at it because it’s not a shiny rubber.

It’s a lego book about space.

Except it’s not a book, it’s the book.

The book that launched the space odyssey. The book he read fifty times, that lead over the next few years to the YouTube videos, the small library of space books, the telescope, the cardboard rocket, the astronaut outfit, the lego kits, the planets duvet covers...

I’ve always been vaguely interested in space but learning about it both from, and with, my little boy has been brilliant. One of the things I discovered was that NASA’s Voyager 2 space probe was launched into space on the day I was born - 20 August 1977.

It's no exaggeration to say that the planets were aligned for my birth. Once in every 175 years they are in a position in their various orbits around the sun, that their gravitional pull enables a space craft to hop from one to the next. The two Voyagers (Voyager 1 was launched a couple of weeks later) were sent on a 30-year ‘Grand Tour’ to survey the gaseous planets.

They’re the most distant man-made objects ever created, and the only two to have ever left our solar system. Carrying with them the famous golden discs that give alien civilisations a guide to planet earth.

Here's three things that I love about the Voyager probes

We can still hear them

Like me, they’re over 40 years old, and showing some signs of wear and tear. Their battery is running out and they’ve shut down a lot of their scientific instruments.

Voyager 2 is over 11 billion miles away. Its radio transmitter power is 23 watts – that’s about the same as the light bulb in my fridge. By the time the signal reaches earth it’s barely a billionth of a billionth of a watt. Yet somehow we can still detect it. I find that astonishing.

Amongst all the electronic noise and chatter that our tiny planet produces, if we listen hard enough we can still hear a tiny signal transmitted from beyond the edge of the solar system. There are rooms in my house that can’t pick up a 4G signal!

I love the fact that it’s someone’s job somewhere to point a big dish in the right direction and listen out for that far flung probe. That although it’s billions of miles from anything, it’s not alone. We’re still listening.

The pale blue dot

This is our solar system selfie, taken in 1990.

At first glance it looks like an accidental pocket picture, but it might just be the most profound photo ever taken. It was the legendary Carl Sagan’s idea – to spin Voyager 1 around and point its camera back at us from 6bn kilometres away.

See that blue speck halfway up the brown band on the right? That’s us.

This is a snapshot of an infinitesimally small corner of the universe, and our planet takes up less than a pixel of it. The only splash of colour for millions of miles.

NASA Pale blue dot photo
You are here

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

— Carl Sagan

They'll outlive the planet they launched from.

Space is really, really empty.

It's calculated that the Voyager probes will drift for almost an eternity without crashing into anything or becoming eroded by solar wind or dust particles. So it is quite likely that they will still be there in 5 billion years time when the sun becomes a red giant and engulfs earth.