PBS announced plans this morning for The Farthest (working title), a two- hour documentary about NASA’s Voyager mission, which began 40 years ago this August. The twin Voyager spacecraft resolved key questions about the outer planets and raised intriguing new ones about the evolution of our solar system.
Originally approved to travel only to Saturn and Jupiter, the spacecraft took advantage of a once-in-176-year planetary alignment and used gravity-assisted slingshot trajectories to extend the missions, with Voyager 2 also visiting Uranus and Neptune. The two spacecraft, equipped with less computing power than a cell phone, sent back unprecedented images and data from all four outer planets and their many spectacular moons.
Four decades later, Voyager 1 has traveled more than 12 billion miles and Voyager 2 more than 10 billion, and both nuclear-powered spacecraft continue to send back data. In 2012, Voyager 1, which is traveling at more than 320 million miles per year, became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space — leaving our solar system behind and ushering humanity into the interstellar age.
With the participation of more than 20 of the original and current mission scientists, engineers and team members, the film documents one of humanity’s greatest achievements in exploration. That includes the aluminum foil from the local market that was added at the last minute to protect the craft from radiation to the near disasters at launch to the emergency maneuvers to fix a crucial frozen instrument platform.
Between them, the Voyagers explored all four of the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and their unique
systems of rings and magnetic fields. Highlights include the discovery on Jupiter’s moon Io of the first active volcano beyond Earth; spoke-like structures that form and disappear between Saturn’s rings; the Great Dark Spot, a giant storm on Neptune that is the size of Earth and similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter; and active geyser-like eruptions on Neptune’s moon Triton, which spew gas and dust from the moon’s interior miles into its thin atmosphere.
After completing its mission to the outer planets, Voyager turned its camera back toward Earth and, at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan, took one of the most famous images of Earth ever created. As described by Sagan in the film, the image showed Earth as a pale blue dot on which “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan was one of the masterminds behind another of Voyager’s most iconic elements: the Golden Record. The documentary reveals how this famous record, which has never been released on Earth, was created and how it presents humanity to any creatures who may find it.
“This is one of the boldest and most spectacular space missions of all time,” EP Sean B. Carroll of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, said in today’s announcement. “As we approach the 40th anniversary of the mission’s launch, with both spacecraft still going strong and farther from Earth than any other object humans have created, we felt it was important to tell the story of how Voyager came to be and what important discoveries it made possible.”
The Farthest is a Crossing The Line film presented by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios in association with The Irish Film Board, ZDF, ARTE and the BBC. The film is written and directed by Emer Reynolds and produced by John Murray and Clare Stronge. Executive producers are John Rubin, Sean B. Carroll and Dennis Liu (HHMI Tangled Bank Studios) and Keith Potter (Irish Film Board). Executive in charge for PBS is Bill Gardner.