GREETINGS FROM INTERSTELLAR SPACE
This artificial wolf, sculpted in mid-howl, sits right outside the entry to the Goldstone Deep Space Network in the Mojave Desert, where giant radio telescopes monitor distant signals from space.
Wolves don’t actually howl at the moon. They howl to communicate with other wolves, and the higher they hold their heads when they emit the sound, the stronger the signal and the more distance it will travel.
“It’s all about acoustics, since projecting their calls upward allows the sound to carry farther,” says Cristin Conger on the Animal Planet web site.
While researching my novel, I visited Goldstone. I saw the huge radio telescope dishes towering over the desert floor and observed the hushed activity in the darkened control rooms where deep-space signals are displayed on arrays of computer monitors surrounded by DSN employees hunkered down in front of them.
It was one of the revelations of my Goldstone visit that Voyager 1, launched way back in 1977, is still out there, phoning home.
When I read this week that Voyager 1 is about to leave the Solar System – a truly momentous occasion – I thought about how long it’s been out there (nearly 35 years), how incredibly far its signals actually travel (11 billion-with-a-b miles back to Earth), and how long it takes to make any measurable progress, even in what is considered our own cosmic neighborhood.
Voyager 1 passed Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980, completing its planned mission to fly by the gas giants and send data back to Earth. Since then it’s been headed toward interstellar space, and soon will send us radio-signal postcards telling us what it’s like in a place no Earth object has ever visited.
The folks at Goldstone will be first to receive these messages, their sensitive receivers and powerful antennae tuned to capture Voyager’s radio transmissions, growing weaker with each passing moment – here’s real-time odometer for those who want specifics.
No one knows what interstellar space is like, a place so unknown we won’t even know when we get there because there’s no distinct boundary.
The first indication we have arrived will be confusion, according to Chief scientist Ed Stone of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Already the signals from the solar system are fading and the high-energy signals from interstellar space are increasing. Some call this a cosmic purgatory or a stagnation zone, but these labels seems limiting and sad. I think we are in a transitional area, a preparatory period for what lies ahead.
I think signals from interstellar space will be more like a cosmic wolf howl.
“It’s no surprise that we are captivated by the sound of a howl,” writes Lisa Matthews on the “Wolf Song of Alaska” web site,“ for as the mysterious song fills the vast expanses we are somehow reminded of, and are reconnected to, the wondrous aspects of nature that we may have forgotten about.”
Surely after the confusion is bound to come wonder, awe, and some new amount of understanding.