“From the edge of the Solar System” exclusive article by Holly Henry (#WSW2013)

NASA recently reported that Voyager 1 has now streaked beyond the influence of our Sun’s magnetic field.  The twin Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, captured with unprecedented clarity the wild and unexpected planetary geographies within our own Solar System, revealing the moons of Jupiter and Saturn as worlds in their own right, replete with mountains, lakes, riverbeds, volcanoes, geysers, as well as storms and weather—even if the rain on Titan is in the form of liquid methane, and the briny geysers of Enceladus rocket thousands of miles above its surface

Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA This photo of water geysers spouting from Saturn's moon Enceladus was taken by NASA's Cassini orbiter in October 2007.

Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
This photo of water geysers spouting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus was taken by NASA’s Cassini orbiter in October 2007.

Cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove observed that the terrain of Mars and the moons of the outer planets “are increasingly present” to us.   As their landscapes settle into the imagination, these planetary bodies have emerged as recognizable, remembered, and even cherished terrain—places, Cosgrove noted, of “detailed human understanding and care.” Asked to name a landmark on the Moon, most people would probably answer the Sea of Tranquility, the landing site of Apollo 11. A few might mention the lunar Apennines, landing site of Apollo 15.  But ask most fifth graders about Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge, or Valles Marineris and they not only readily reply, but immediately envision these remarkable topographic features.  Mars has become a place we know, remember, and dream of exploring, someday with boots on the ground.

It was the Viking orbiters that brought back the first stunning images of the geography of Mars. By the late 20th century, Mars in particular emerged as the familiar landscape we recognize and know.  It is as if a Mercator’s projection of Mars lifted from its paper and rounded into a globe with tangible polar ice caps, soaring volcanoes, immense rift valleys, and plains of crescent, barchan dunes.  Today these iconic features of Martian terrain preoccupy, and persist in, the human imagination.  Images from Viking and later missions allow us to turn the globe of Mars in our mind and trace with our fingers the planet’s volcanoes, its broken and unzipped canyons, its ancient and desiccated riverbeds. With Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity, we’ve explored in fine detail Martian geology and have discovered that ancient Mars harbored surface water that could have sustained life. While the image of the whole Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 17, is estimated to be the most reproduced image in photographic history, as a result of Voyager, Viking, Cassini and other NASA missions, by the late twentieth century the planetary real estate of our Solar System emerged as equally tangible and indelibly ingrained in the human imagination. The geographies of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan are reconfiguring our sense of place, this time in relation to the Solar System itself.

Even now, Voyager 1, at roughly 11.7 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 at 9.5 billion miles away are plunging into the interstellar void.   Their feeble radio signals take about a day to reach Earth as the Voyager 1 silently streaks through space at approximately 38,000 miles per hour. By modern standards, the Voyager spacecraft are obsolete.  They communicate at 160 bits per second, which is 25,000 times slower than basic broadband internet services, and function on less than three light bulbs’ worth of power.  On Earth, 8-track tape decks and LP records have been relegated to yard sales; at the edge of the Solar System, the Voyagers’ technology is still cutting edge.  As they continue to report on what Stephen Pyne calls the soft geography at the edge of the heliopause, the Voyagers represent a vast architecture that has powerfully shaped the human imagination in the 20th and 21st century.

Literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin claimed that architecture inevitably reflects the mythos of its people.  As David Spurr explains, Benjamin argued that architecture often translates the deep, unstated narratives of a culture into brick or stone. The same might be argued of the far flung Voyagers, whose mission is only possible via an architecture that spans great gulfs of space, extending from Voyager 1 at the edge of the Solar System, to the Goldstone Deep Space Network in the Mojave desert, and its radio dish networks in Madrid or Canberra, to Caltech in Pasadena, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Written into the architecture of these spacecraft, that carry with them a phonograph record of photos and recorded greetings from Earth, is a primal human attribute: that we stand amazed at life’s possibility, even in the tiny packet of an ant, or a sphere of microscopic phytoplankton.  Voyager not only opened a window to the many worlds within our Solar System, but the mission equally embodies our cultural dream of finding life elsewhere in the vast abysses of space.


Holly Henry is Professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino, whose research focus is the cultural studies of science. She is co-author with astronomer Chris Impey of Dreams of Other Worlds, an analysis of 11 iconic NASA astronomy and planetary science missions.