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Space Music Technology

How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made (newyorker.com) 122

Fascinating article on The New Yorker about how the Voyager Golden Record was made: The Voyagers' scientific mission will end when their plutonium-238 thermoelectric power generators fail, around the year 2030. After that, the two craft will drift endlessly among the stars of our galaxy -- unless someone or something encounters them someday. With this prospect in mind, each was fitted with a copy of what has come to be called the Golden Record. Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever crafted by human hands. We don't know enough about extraterrestrial life, if it even exists, to state with any confidence whether the records will ever be found. They were a gift, proffered without hope of return. I became friends with Carl Sagan, the astronomer who oversaw the creation of the Golden Record, in 1972. He'd sometimes stop by my place in New York, a high-ceilinged West Side apartment perched up amid Norway maples like a tree house, and we'd listen to records. Lots of great music was being released in those days, and there was something fascinating about LP technology itself. A diamond danced along the undulations of a groove, vibrating an attached crystal, which generated a flow of electricity that was amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process was it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contained or how accurately a given stereo had translated it. The open-endedness of the medium seemed akin to the process of scientific exploration: there was always more to learn.
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How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made

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  • "Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases...."

    Seems like the New Yorker wrote a super long unnecessary article when the Slashdot summary only needed part of a sentence! Par for the course (for both).
  • I wonder if we were going to re-do it today if we could come up with better media? A billion years of memory retention ain't bad but this was 1972 we were talking about. Computer RAM memories were still mostly magnetic core with a 1.6us cycle time.

    What would we use today?

    • by green1 ( 322787 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @11:00AM (#55057111)

      Considering the current state of the art in storage devices... probably something that degrades to unreadable before it leaves our solar system.
      "progress" has not been good in the "improve longevity" part of data storage.

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        [...re-do it today if we could come up with better media?] probably something that [doesn't] degrades to unreadable before it leaves our solar system.

        Fat chunky "bits" does help longevity. Cosmic rays and faster-than-bullet dust will pummel the disk or any medium. If the info were more compact, then redundancy may be needed to fill in the gaps caused by such space weather. If you get too clever with packaging, the aliens may not be able to figure it out or maybe won't have the patience for "puzzles".

        Perhaps

        • by green1 ( 322787 )

          The OP seemed to think that because technology had come so far since the first records were made that we'd have a better way now. My point was that technology surrounding data longevity has not really progressed since that time. If anything, modern storage methods have much worse longevity than the older forms.

          You just can't get much better longevity than "stuff etched deeply on a strong surface" This is why we can still read stone tablets from centuries ago, but can't recover data from some CDs that are on

          • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

            But the etching choices are probably better now than they were in the 1970's, at least cheaper for NASA/JPL. One can buy laser-etched rocks/glass/metal at consumer prices now, for example. That kind of thing was very expensive in the 70's. In that sense we have progressed.

            But I agree that it's different technology and/or a different problem from consumer-oriented products. Longevity is not a consumer manufacture's key concern, and they have thus sacrificed that factor to gain in others. We could say techno

            • by green1 ( 322787 )

              It goes beyond that, because consumers chose the cheaper options, manufacturers stop making the more expensive ones, meaning that even institutional types can't buy them. It's getting much harder to find archival grade storage medium because it's just not cost effective for companies to produce it when very few people buy it.

              Beyond that, when developing a new technology, why bother looking at longevity as part of the design specs when nobody will pay for it?

              If you want try long lasting storage, you're left

              • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

                The thing we designed several decades ago is estimated to last over a billion years, do you really think we'd do better than that today? Sure maybe we could do the same thing for cheaper (though that may not be the case either to be honest) but I doubt we'd do something that has more longevity.

                That's what I'm wondering. The Voyager disk has "wasted material" that is used for merely structural integrity. If every portion of the recording disk/object had info encoded into it, then perhaps it could have more i

                • If you focus on the ends (intention); Send LOTS more with enough initial acceleration and better gravity assist tricks as to cover more destinations faster. This is, taking the proverbial message in a bottle but dropped in mass from an airplane all over the world's oceans.

                  Now if you focus on the means (tech), not long ago /. had an article on a way to store information etched in the structure of some special crystals. Cant find it right now but I doubt it was spaceproff in any way.

                  Maybe we cant really
    • Woosh. The record was physical on purpose. Deep space radiation for millions of years (plus the radiation from the planetary fly-bys) would kill any technology that would fit on the spacecraft.

      Making a physical data store any smaller would reduce the likelihood of long-term data integrity. Consider the effects of millions of years of deep space travel: radiation, micro-meteorite impacts, constant unfiltered UV light, etc.

      I'd say that we would probably use the same thing, plus a replica sent Arecibo style

      • by green1 ( 322787 )

        I'd actually be more interested in seeing information on the instructions given to play the record, and what details of it are thought to be enough to allow an alien species to both understand it, and actually accomplish it. It seems to me that it almost needed to include some form of record player, but that adds to the complexity, and the likelihood of failure.

        • Prego, it's in there. Second image on the article:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          more details:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          • by green1 ( 322787 )

            While I can view the cover image, it doesn't really speak to me enough to build a record player. And the detail from Wikipedia explains what it says, but doesn't really explain why they think it's the right way to say it.

            That's the part I'm curious about, why do we think that those particular images will explain how to play the record in a way that any intelligent species could figure out?

            • Because any intelligent species getting the record would immediately stick it under a microscope to see what the grooves were for, notice the grooves are wriggly, and conclude they probably store information. A little more study and they would determine that it's actually one very long, continuous groove, and the instructions take it from there.

              • by green1 ( 322787 )

                Do they though? can you really see how to make an image from those grooves without reading any of the explanations?

                • We could figure it out quickly. Someone that much smarter would do so that much more quickly.

                  You have to hypothize idiots with the brain power of a monkey and no senses like ours to stand a remote chance of failure.

            • It looks like the diagram [wikimedia.org] on the cover doesn't specify the direction the record should turn.
              I'm more concerned about what happens if the aliens play the record backwards. They might actually think that we're into that kind of stuff when they come to visit.
              Instructions unclear, caused interstellar war.
        • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @11:50AM (#55057497) Homepage

          It should be immediately obvious to anyone who examined it under any sort of microscope (regardless of their sensory inputs) that there's analog data encoded there on the grooves. They shouldn't even need "instructions" to recognize that and digitize the data. A spectral analysis should show variations in frequencies, with all sorts of clustering. Regardless of what senses they perceive through, they should be able to map it to one or more of them - either as 1d data, or in 2d as a spectrogram. Enough analysis should allow them to determine that most of the audio is acoustic vibrations, so they'd map it to whatever method they best use when studying or perceiving acoustic vibrations.

          Analysis of the the image section should readily show that there are 115 distinct groupings, each comprised of 3 similar patterns of 512 separate signals, and that each separate signal is correlated with but subtly different to the one before it. This should suggest 115 groupings of 2-axis data measured over 3 related but distinct parameters. Which they can then map to whatever they use best to perceive 2-axis or 3-axis data. Again, further analysis should be able to figure out analogues of certain images to natural phenomenon that they recognize (for example, images of planets and moons, or the solar spectrum diagram). This would then let them figure out that the images represent optical data on specific frequencies of light in the visual spectrum, which they could then map to however they best prefer to represent light in that spectrum.

          In short, I have no doubt that they could properly "read" the records. It's more a question of how much they could actually understand of the content. The silhouettes look to be particularly confusing. And even "natural place" images could be highly deceptive - for example, this island [nasa.gov]. If they knew nothing of trees, that might be percieved as a type of aa lava on top two dissimilar layered volcanic or sedimentary features.

          • It's more a question of how much they could actually understand of the content.

            I get your point, but I would think that any species/entity that would/could actually capture and analyze the record to that extent would also have a fair amount of experience in environments not like their own native environment.

            • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

              The aliens might be used to 8-track tapes and think the disk is merely a Frisbee ;-) (Included is a diagram on how to play it, along with a needle, by the way.)

              I do agree if they spend a reasonable amount of time analyzing it, they'd eventually figure out how to "play" it; but the finders may not be so motivated, perhaps because they are in a hurry or have very limited resources when they find it.

              Suppose you were wandering in the desert with a small group and your trip has been rough such that you are short

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        To be fair, we could do it better today. If we were willing to make the decoding more complex, we could make it digital with error-correcting codes, allowing for much higher amounts of data storage at the same level of durability, or conversely much more durability at the same level of error storage.

        Physical indentations with a precious metal coating is probably the best storage means available today. But a on-off linear representation rather than wasteful grooves would be a much better choice. Also, if we

    • by aliquis ( 678370 )

      Just give them texts describing how monotheism is the thing and how it's important to worship the one god just right. .. have them kill each other off arguing which way that is.

  • All they had to do was ask Elvis Presley - he had 90 gold albums!
  • by burtosis ( 1124179 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @11:09AM (#55057169)
    Given they have historical value they will for sure be recovered by humans, and relatively soon. We know where they are and people will probably use thier return to demonstrate thier capabilities even if there isn't a finnancial reason. If I had to bet I'd say less than 500 years. By then we could send craft far faster and further making voyager less relevant.
    • We need to manage to get back out of low earth orbit first before assuming we're going to make it into interstellar space anytime.

    • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @11:29AM (#55057345)

      So... You think we are going to get such speeds soon? Right now, the best we can manage it likely about 1/2 C using ion engines (unmanned one way trip, no stopping at destination). The limiting factor is how much propellant we can actually get onto a craft along with a nuclear reactor big enough to power things. Also, the most efficient ion engines use Xenon which is in pretty limited supply.

      I'm not seeing any promising space propulsion technologies that will get something useful going any faster myself.

      Hard to know what we might invent in 500 years, but if you are working on any kind of propellant based system you will be limited by nozzle velocities and the weight of the propellant. Assuming you can get 90% of C nozzle velocities, you are going to have a problem getting any useful load going 50% C while keeping enough propellant to stop when you get there. If you want a two way trip, just the propellant weight will increase exponentially.

      50 % C is simply not fast enough, assuming we could actually get to that speed...

      • It's not a problem for a robotic probe and simple nuclear fission engines. The impulse efficiency (nozzle velocity of mass) is several orders of magnitude higher for many types of engines including ion drives and nuclear fission engines, both of which are old technology already. .5C dosent factor into anything the voyager probe had a single chemical rocket engine provide the minority of the energy while a few slingshot flybys created the majority. We are chasing a model T ford let run down a short hill us
        • LOL.. Voyager is traveling a whole lot slower than 1/2 C.. But that's not my point.

          I'm saying that with nozzle velocities at 1/2 C you will have issues thrusting a space craft of any useable weight to speeds approaching 1/2 C. Chemical propellants are not efficient enough (weight to thrust/Impulse) . Ion thrusters are much better but. Right now, ion thrusters only accelerate the propellant to maybe 100 Km/s, which isn't even 1 % of C. We are going to have to do a lot better with propellant nozzle speeds t

          • I still have no idea what you are even talking about. Voyager 1 is moving at 38 thousand miles an hour. A nuclear power source and a much improved ion drive could catch it in only a decade. Return in another 2, simple for a robotic probe only perhaps 40 years in the future. Lol it was a crappy chemical rocket from the 60s not alien tech.
            • Sorry, didn't realize you intended to go get it and bring it back.... Doubt anyone ever decides to do that. There would be no point to head to the edge of interstellar space and return.

              My discussion was assuming you want to go someplace outside the solar system and happened pass one of the vehicles along the way... We are not leaving the solar system for another and return even a radio signal. We simply cannot go fast enough unless the laws of physics get changed...

    • I would say it is unlikely anyone will ever find them. Considering the size of the probes compared to the vastness of space, it's unlikely any alien civilization would just stumble upon them. Second, they are moving relatively slow in space, it will be sometime before they reach any thing. Voyager 1 is moving about 2AU per year (300M km). The nearest solar system (Proxima Centauri if Voyager was even headed that direction) is 268142.2 AU. That means it would reach Proxima Centauri in 134071 years if it was
      • Keep in mind that the spacecraft have a potential be to be around for a very, very long time. Even if they only pass by a star every few hundred thousand years, in a billion years they will have passed by thousands of stars. It's very likely they'll still be floating through space when the Sun goes into its red giant and engulfs the Earth. Eventually they may hit something or get sucked into a black hole, but they could still exist for billions or even trillions of years after the Earth is gone and the S

    • It's harder than you'd think.

      We have precise trajectory data, so a future craft should be able to catch up. That's not the problem. It's turning around again: The delta-V needs would be huge.

      • Not a problem with nuclear fueled craft, much less something exotic like antimatter that may be feasible in just 400 years.
    • by ebvwfbw ( 864834 )

      Probably not. It's been out there for nearly 50 years. Even if they did, they'd probably find a note in its place - Switched the original with this Sgt Peppers Lonely Harts Club Band record. Laying on top of the stack is Twilight Time.

  • Even today, you could make a really good case for using a record. All you really need to make it play is a paper cone and a needle. I bet a rolled up leaf and a thorn would even work. It's not the best way, but it would certainly let somebody know what was coming out of the "amplifier" was non-random, and worthy of attention.

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Well, if you're talking content for primitives, you better give it a reentry/landing system and aim it at a planet considered likely to have life.

      Oh geez, are we now to become the monolith aliens from 2001? ;)

      • LOL...Why not? The idea that slimy green things might be undulating around our li'l Voyager is kind of inspiring, isn't it?

        To be honest, though, I wasn't thinking it would have to be primitives. It's just a very direct system...you wouldn't have to figure out what kind of power supply, or have something complicated to make it produce sound. As long as they could read a pictogram, they'd know enough to make noise with it.

  • by MrLogic17 ( 233498 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @11:36AM (#55057405) Journal

    ...than the blog post.

    Released in the 1978, "Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record" is a great book with most of the record's images and a bunch of cool info. I have a copy - very fun reading.

    (Posted as FYI for those who didn't know)

  • In 500 or 1000 or whatever years humans will fly out there and bring it back to Earth.
    • I vote no. Let it go and build a big tourist trap coasing along a few miles away, like will eventually be done with the moon landing locations.

  • From the summary: "Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever crafted by human hands."

    All while existing in the interstellar cold and radiation of space. Wow. I'd be stoked if they could make a terrestrial, commercial storage medium which could last a fraction as long. We've got too much data for stone tablets.

    • You can BUY optical media based on gold substrates, this is not new tech at all. Try finding a working DVD player in a billion years tho.
  • A diamond danced along the undulations of a groove, vibrating an attached crystal...

    This is a poor description of how a (piezo-electric) crystal pickup works; and a crystal pickup is inferior to the various sorts of magnetic pickups.

  • A Billion years is a LONG LONG time. But then again, I guess there's not much wear on something that's in a near vacuum...

    I can see the spiel that a salesman would have to get me to buy an extended warranty on that....

    "But, you never know if you're going to fly too close to a star, or even a black hole... if that happens, the accidental damage coverage will replace it for a small fee. Remember you have to pay for return shipping though."

"If you want to eat hippopatomus, you've got to pay the freight." -- attributed to an IBM guy, about why IBM software uses so much memory

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