What better way to celebrate 40 years of NASA’s interplanetary Voyager mission than with an eye-filling movie that brings the decades-old story up to date?
“The Search for Life in Space,” an IMAX 3-D documentary that opens at the Pacific Science Center today, begins with the twin Voyager probes’ exploration of the solar system and beyond. Voyager’s “Grand Tour” got off the ground in 1977 and continues to this day.
The film touches on astronomer Carl Sagan’s campaign to send a message to extraterrestrial civilizations that may someday come across the probe, in the form of a Golden Record that was launched aboard each of the two spacecraft.
The Golden Record encoded audio files of greetings in 55 languages, plus images, sounds and music ranging from a portrait of a nursing mother, to cricket calls, to Chuck Berry’s rock classic “Johnny B. Goode.” (Comedian Steve Martin joked that the aliens sent back a four-word message: “Send More Chuck Berry.”)
Scientific findings from Voyager and the interplanetary missions that followed have provided ample material for astrobiologists to work with:
- Evidence of hidden salt-water oceans on Europa and Ganymede, two icy moons of Jupiter, thanks to Voyager and the Galileo probe.
- Signs of water-spewing geysers on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, thanks to the Voyager and Cassini missions.
- The discovery of rivers and lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on Saturn’s smog-covered moon Titan, made by the Cassini orbiter and its piggyback Huygens lander.
- Hints of liquid water on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“The Search for Life in Space” covers all this and more – including the Kepler space telescope’s discovery of thousands of exoplanets; the detection of an Earth-sized world at Proxima Centauri, the star that’s nearest to our own solar system; and the revelation that tiny animals known as tardigrades or water bears can survive in the vacuum of outer space.
But is the movie entertaining? Based on the reaction from our “GeekWire at the Movies” reviewers, the answer to the ultimate question is yes.
Our lead reviewer is Henry Schlosser, a 10-year-old fifth-grader in Seattle (and the son of GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser). Here’s an edited transcript of the discussion we had after an advance showing of “The Search for LIfe in Space.”
Alan Boyle: Henry, I’m anxious to hear what you thought of the movie. Was that all new stuff for you?
Henry Schosser: Not really. I heard some of that stuff before – like about the new planets and what planets are covered in, and what their atmosphere is. And if there would be any life there. What that movie told me that I didn’t know is, the places that living things would be most likely to live on.
Kurt Schlosser: You mean the moons? Not necessarily planets, but moons?
Henry: Possibly the moons, yeah. … And probably Mars also.
Alan: Probably during your lifetime, someone’s going to find life somewhere else in the universe, whether it’s on Mars, or Enceladus, or someplace else.
Henry: I bet they’ll find some kind of life somewhere in space.
Kurt: Don’t you think it’ll just look like something we’ve seen on Earth, like that water bear?
Henry: That thing that can live in space? That’s so weird. I bet we would find something like that.
Kurt: I was intrigued by the fact that we still have to plumb the depths of this planet, looking for evidence of life in places where we didn’t think there’d be any – like the deepest depths of the ocean, or underground lava caves.
Henry: Yeah, i’ve watched a lot of shows about life that’s way underwater. Stuff that I haven’t seen before, like these creatures that have a weird way of surviving in high pressure, with no sunlight.
Alan: When I was growing up, I don’t think we knew there were moons in our own solar system that had hidden oceans beneath icy surfaces with more water than we have in Earth’s oceans.
Henry: I didn’t even know that there was a moon that had more water than all the water on Earth combined together. That’s a lot of water, so just imagine how much water is on that moon. How much would that even be?
Alan: It’s substantial, it’s like a 60-mile-deep ocean on Europa, whereas Earth’s oceans go no deeper than seven miles.
Henry: That’s crazy!
Kurt: What would a life form do if it came across Carl Sagan’s message in a bottle? How would it know to play the record?
Alan: I question whether they would know what to do with it. On the back of the Golden Record, the scientists engraved pictures that are supposed to explain how to play the record. They even have a needle attached to it. But I wonder whether an alien would just pick it up and take a bite out of it. Mmm, golden cookie!
Kurt: Is sending some sort of message to aliens an idea that would even get off the ground in modern times?
Henry: Just imagine finding something that could communicate properly. It might be like birds squawking at each other, or dogs barking. If something talked a kind of language, that would be crazy.
Alan: There was this movie called “Arrival” …
Henry: Yeah, we watched that. It was really cool.
Kurt: The main character had to learn the aliens’ language. She should have been in this movie.
Alan: Henry, one thing I wonder about is that there are so many science fiction movies out there with aliens, like “Star Wars.” People are so used to aliens that I wonder if it would be a big deal. If people said, “Wow, we found some microbes on Mars,” would some people say, “Big deal … where’s Chewbacca?”
Kurt: Do you have this expectation that some life form from a gazillion million miles away should look a certain way, or are you ready to be wowed by the tiniest speck?
More from Henry and Kurt:
Boy meets artificial girl
Henry: I’d expect something tiny. Considering how many small things there are in the world, it’s not hard to believe that’s what we’d find. I bet you’d just find some kind of strange bacterium. Even if you find something that small, it would be extraordinary. It’d be a big deal.
Kurt: I want it to look like the things in “Alien,” or else keep looking.
Henry: That would be scary, though! It would be creepy.
Kurt: Hey, I didn’t say bring it back here!
“The Search for Life in Space” opens tonight at the Pacific Science Center’s Paccar IMAX Theater. Also today, NASA and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum are celebrating the 40-year mark for the Voyager missions with a live-streamed presentation at 12:30 p.m. ET (9:30 a.m. PT). Speakers will include Voyager project scientist Ed Stone; Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd; and Ann Druyan, creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message. Watch the show on NASA TV. (The show is due to be re-streamed at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. PT today.)
Today’s observance marks the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch on Sept. 5, 1977. Voyager 2 was actually launched a couple of weeks earlier, on Aug. 20, 1977. A crowdfunded project that’s similar to the Voyager Interstellar Message, called the One Earth Message, is preparing a digital “message in a bottle” that’s meant to be uploaded onto a memory chip on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Today at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT), the team behind the One Earth Message will talk about the project on Kickstarter Live.