In 1977, Voyager Mission Was Ready for Aliens and a Mysterious Solar System

Voyager
Undated photo of the Voyager I spacecraft. The two Voyager spacecrafts were launched 40 years ago. Handout/Reuters

Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Space Odyssey” on September 5, 1977. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft launch, Newsweek is republishing the story. 

At Pasasdena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory last week, scientists anxiously monitored a ton of spacecraft called Voyager 2, fleeing from Earth at 22,000 miles an hour with a payload of electronics gear and cameras. Across the continent at Cape Canaveral, technicians anxiously inspected and re-inspected its sister ship, Voyager 1, before its scheduled launch next week. The twin craft will race through space together on the most far-reaching journey of discovery ever mounted from Earth: a nine-year flight that will take them near the remote planets Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus. For a few nervous hours after blast-off, Voyager 2's ambitious mission appeared doomed. Just as it escaped from Earth's pull, the craft pitched and rolled and radio data indicated that a 7 1/2-foot boom carrying cameras, spectrometers and microwave instruments had not deployed properly. An hour later, the spacecraft stabilized. JPL engineers considered, then rejected, a variety of explanations and now ascribe the problem only to "internal malfunctions." The boom seems to be extended now, but last week the onboard computers inexplicably refused a command intended to lock it into place. Although scientists are not sure what happened, they are adjusting the boom system on Voyager 1 hoping to avoid difficulty after lift-off.

First Close-ups: If both spaceships function properly, their first task will be to examine the giant planet Jupiter and five of its 13 moons. By December of next year, Voyager 1 will have overtaken its twin because of a shorter trajectory and should be bearing down on Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet. Eighty days later, the craft will swoop within 173,000 miles of the planet, its television cameras sending back color photos 40 times sharper than those taken by Pioneers 10 and 11 three years ago. Whirled around by Jupiter's gravity, Voyager 1 will pass the Jovian satellites Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto—all discovered by Galileo—before soaring off to Saturn, with Voyager 2 trailing it by a few months.

Saturn is a world of mystery. Astronomers do not know whether the planet has a solid surface, are not sure what makes up its three rings, and cannot even agree on how many moons it possesses. Beginning in 1980, eleven Voyager experiments may solve some of these puzzles and will give scientists a view of Titan, a Saturnian satellite whose atmosphere seems as dense as Earth's. Some astronomers speculate that Titan's surface may harbor primitive forms of life.

If Voyager 2 is still space-worthy, scientists will then send it to Uranus, 1.8 billion miles from Earth. Astronomers know little about Uranus. Not until this year, for instance, did they discover that the planet is girdled by rings like Saturn. When Voyager 2 reaches Uranus in 1986, it will provide the first close-in photos ever taken of the planet.

Besides their investigative equipment, each Voyager will carry a 12-inch copper disk that will provide pictures and sounds of Earth when played at 16 2/3 rpm. If any putative inhabitants of outer space possess ordinary television-receiving equipment, they will be able to see images of Olympic sprinters and the Great Wall of China and to hear greetings in 55 languages and a Beethoven string quartet. "The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet," suggests astronomer Carl Sagan. The chances that the disk will be played are minuscule, but on the Voyagers' space odyssey nothing can be known for certain.