The Farthest is a 2017 documentary that describes the story of the Voyager probes, the human-made objects most distant from the Earth. Since their launch in 1977, the machines have managed to survive to this day while sending valuable information back to Earth all the while. The generators installed on the Voyagers will likely only be able to power them for approximately another decade, but the hulls may outlast humanity as they travel through the endless void, carrying a golden record of various information such as images, sounds, and printed messages. This report details the main points of the film as perceived by the author.
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Discoveries about Jupiter
The Voyagers do not have surveillance beyond the Solar System as their primary missions. According to The Farthest, the main objectives of the probes are flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Titan, Neptune, and Uranus, as well as their systems. The crafts are equipped with an array of scientific instruments such as black-and-white cameras that allow them to record their surroundings and send the data back to Earth.
The Farthest describes the interest scientists had in the giant storms of Jupiter and the way the Voyager 1 was able to provide them with data that did not match their expectations. The theories predicted that the vortexes could only achieve their longevity by staying passive. However, the footage sent by the Voyager 1 showed active storms that could fit several Earths inside of them, and instead of the predicted smooth patterns, the outlines were turbulent, continuously shifted, and even collided and merged without disappearing.
The documentary also talks about the dangers of approaching Jupiter with its enormously strong magnetic field and radiation. After the design for the Voyager 1 was finalized, the theorists suggested that the environment was so harsh that it would instantly destroy the spacecraft’s electronic systems, effectively ending the mission. The Farthest describes how the construction team did not have the time to perform a design review and was forced to resort to unconventional means such as purchasing consumer-grade aluminum foil, cleaning it with wipes and alcohol, and wrapping the cables in it.
The Voyagers achieved other breakthroughs by providing evidence of specific events being possible on celestial bodies other than Earth. The Farthest mentions the probes sending back evidence of lightning occurring on Jupiter and of active volcanism on Io. The movie describes the fly-bys as an exciting affair during which the scientists were afraid of stepping away for food or sleep for fear of missing a vital transmission of new information.
The Golden Record
The data on the record carried by the Voyagers was mostly collected at Cornell University under the direction of Professor Carl Sagan. Sagan’s wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, who was also responsible for the creation of the plaque carried by the Pioneer probe, co-produced the record. The information on the record includes a number of greetings in various languages, drawings, music, and a transcription of a person’s brainwaves.
The selection of the people who would contribute to the record did not follow any criteria other than their ability to add something that was not present in the data collection. The Farthest records remembrances of participants who say they were selected because they were in the right place at the right time, and knew a foreign language. One person says they learned they would be recorded five minutes before the procedure began. The submitters decided the contents of the greetings; one of the people featured states that “it’s not like there’s a rulebook for what you should say when you’re greeting the universe” (The Farthest).
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The Exploration of Saturn and Titan
Saturn and Titan presented the greatest interest for the scientists behind the Voyager’s mission. Saturn’s rings were a fascinating phenomenon, and Titan is the target of a significant amount of attention because there are popular theories that state that Titan resembles Earth’s primordial state, and studying it could result in valuable insights about Earth’s history. According to The Farthest, the reason for the construction of two Voyager probes instead of one was the need to have one of the probes pass by Titan, which would make it unable to visit Neptune and Uranus. Furthermore, the plans for Voyager 2 included abandoning the visits to those planets in favor of inspecting Titan in case of Voyager 1’s failure.
The cameras installed on the Voyager 1 were unable to penetrate the thick clouds of smog surrounding Titan. However, the radio signal from the spacecraft reached the ground and allowed the people on Earth to determine the pressure and temperature on the surface. Valuable information was gained using spectrometers and radio science, and as there was little else to achieve, Voyager 1’s mission was declared complete, and the craft began leaving the Solar System.
Voyager 2 arrived at Saturn nine months later, and its mission took it dangerously close to the planet’s rings. Furthermore, the craft had to go behind Saturn and therefore lose contact with Earth for several hours, after which it emerged sending blank photographs and error messages. The issue was determined to be a jam in the camera positioning system, and through slowly attempting to move the gears around, the engineering team was able to resolve the issue and allow the craft to continue its mission.
Uranus and Neptune
Voyager 2’s mission to Uranus and Neptune was the first of its kind. According to The Farthest, the ability to pass by Jupiter and Saturn was a stroke of luck for the craft, as it dramatically decreased the time necessary to get to the planets, which would ordinarily be approximately thirty years. However, the darkness caused by Uranus’s distance from the Sun, combined with the tremendous speeds of both Voyager and Uranus, presented a unique engineering challenge with regards to photography. The visit uncovered many curious features of the planets, such as the contorted magnetic field of Uranus or the puzzling geography of its moon, Miranda.
In 1989, Voyager 2 approached its final target, Neptune, and gave Earth the first detailed image of the planet. The mission involved passing extremely close to the atmosphere, risking a tumble and crash into the ground. The photos made by the craft confused scientists until one of them proposed to view them three-dimensionally, discovering that the pictures depicted geysers on Neptune’s satellite despite its massive distance from the Sun and the resulting low temperatures. With that, the craft’s planetary mission was over, and it left for its interstellar journey.
The Voyagers are a magnificent achievement of engineering and mathematics that provided valuable insights into the nature of the more distant planets of the Solar System. They made the existence of Neptune and Uranus, previously close to a myth, into a concrete reality, and both proved and disproved theories posited about the events possible on other planets. Completing their missions, they will keep traveling through space for a limitless amount of time, carrying a message from humanity toward the stars.
The Farthest. Directed by Emer Reynolds, performances by Frank Drake, Carolyn Porco, John Casani, Lawrence Krauss, and Timothy Ferris. Crossing The Line Productions, 2017.