Scannain caught up with Irish director Emer Reynolds to talk about her sublime new documentary The Farthest, which opened at the weekend at cinemas around the country.
Is it humankind’s greatest achievement? 12 billion miles away a tiny spaceship is leaving our solar system and entering the void of deep space. It is the first human-made object ever to do so. Slowly dying within its heart is a plutonium generator that will beat for perhaps another decade before the lights on Voyager finally go out. But this little craft will travel on for millions of years, carrying a Golden Record bearing recordings and images of life on Earth. In all likelihood, Voyager will outlive humanity and all our creations. It could be the only thing to mark our existence. Perhaps someday an alien will find it and wonder.
Last time we spoke with Emer Reynolds was in March, prior to the film premiering at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, where it won the cleverly titled AUDI-ence Award. From then to now the film has embarked on its own mini-Grand Tour as it premiered in Seattle, Sydney, New York, New Zealand, and Edinburgh. “It’s been fantastic, just getting to show it to audiences all over the place. And there’s been such an amazing response and it’s so exciting to see audiences loving it wherever it goes. I just can’t wait for it to go on release. It was very emotional bringing it back to Galway. It was the first time that we’d shown it in Ireland since we were at ADIFF and in the meantime, it had been all over the place. It was lovely to be able to bring it back home and back to where it all started. It’s a fully Irish team that made this film so we’re all loving showing it here. So proud to show it here and feel that it’s coming out of this culture.”
The Voyagers are still going and still sending back data. The Hubble space telescope was recently tasked with projecting the paths for the two craft for the next 90-100 thousand years. Meanwhile, Cassini, a probe sent to record data on Saturn and its moons, will end its mission next month by crashing into the planet. “Cassini’s story is absolutely gorgeous. It would have made another great film. It’ll have a sort of swan dive into Saturn as it orbited closer and closer to the planet. I think it’ll have about 26 orbits as it descends closer and closer before it actually burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.” It’s been deliberately crashed into Saturn so that its radioactive power source can have no impact on the planet or its moons.” NASA has really strict rules about leaving anything behind, which is kind of mad considering all the junk they’ve left behind on the Moon and on Mars and all of the stuff that is floating around the earth. But any of the missions that go close to the big planets have these really strict rules about what they can leave behind. So once it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere there will be traces of it left but they’ll be 1 in a billion. I think it’ll be interesting when some future alien looks at the makeup of Saturn and wonders about what the metallic stuff is.”
Professional Engineering had a story about what would be different now versus then in terms of design and engineering. And other than increased memory for the computers not a lot would have changed. Perhaps being a 21st century craft a selfie camera would be required so that it could check in at Saturn or one of the other planets. “Selfies and tweets, that’s what it would be sending. That’d be the difference.”
Every Monday morning NASA sends a message to the Voyagers asking how they are. Due to the huge distances of communication, 38 hours later they get a response. For Voyager 2 only one of the three stations on Earth for deep space monitoring, in Canberra, can contact it. It takes a 74-metre long antenna to receive the messages and even then they are so faint it takes hours to reconstruct. “It’s mind-blowing what they are able to do. The signal is so weak when they get it back that it takes them 6 hours to gather the signal so that they can read it. Over 1000 times weaker than an average radio signal. What they can achieve with how far that it has gone and they are still able to talk to it.”
There are about 8 years of communications from the Voyagers left due to the half-life of the radioactive isotopes powering the crafts’ computers. “It’s arguable that what will happen first…now because of where it is the Earth can only be found in its relationship to the sun and it can only communicate as long as it has what the call “Earth Lock” so that the antennas on Voyager and on Earth are locked…at some point they won’t quite be able to lock on anymore. So they might still have power and still be taking measurements but it will drift off Earth-line and we won’t hear from it anymore. That’s why for Voyager 2 it’s Canberra as it is going down and out of the plane of the planets.”
It’s simply brilliant. Here’s a thing built 40 years ago that has left the heliosphere and is out in interstellar space and will continue going pretty much forever. “It will outlive the Earth itself. So long after the Earth is burnt to a crisp by our sun being a red giant Voyager will still be out there with all of these sights and sounds of us.”
Both Voyagers have messages from Earth, music, photographs and information on our species and our culture written to golden records attached to the outside of the crafts. “It’s literally the first question anybody asks me. “How will they play the record?” They’ve got instructions on how to build a turntable and there’s a stylus in the package so the aliens can build their very own record player. It’s gold plated copper and like all records, it needs a good cover. It needs somebody who’d put it back in its sleeve. The instructions are in binary and if they are able to decode it that they’ll be able to decode further. And there are diagrams that show them if that if they’ve built the turntable and applied the stylus correctly the first thing that should come down is a circle. They’ve put that out in a kind of code to say that “if you get this then you’re on track”. They talk about it in the film as being this real mind-expanding adventure. They all sat around and went “so these aliens how could we communicate with them. How can we reach across these huge distances of space and time and communicate our culture and information?” It was a very simple this plus this and you should get that. Lawrence Krauss when he was over for the Q&A in the IFI the other day was saying how he thought that they had wasted too much space on the Golden Record with too much music. It’s was a really interesting conversation about what would you send if you were limited in space, but I think music is a really good thing to send because it communicates on so many levels. Would aliens feel the emotion in the music, in the pianos and flutes they way that we do, or is it a culturally learned behaviour? He thought that they put too much music in it and I think that they didn’t send enough.”
All of the people involved in the project seem to have loved the experience. That is very much evident in the interviews on the documentary. The current head of the project, Suzy Dodd, started out there before going on to other stuff and returning to Voyager. The crafts’ journey will have bookended her career at NASA. “She joined at Neptune as a very junior engineer, practically fresh out of college, and now she’s the project manager as it flies on its historic journey into interstellar space. One of the lovely things that I think about the story is that reflection on time. That you do have human beings that were young people who dreamed up this amazing adventure. And through the film and through the story of Voyager they age, they check back in with the team at all of the encounters: 79, 81, 86 and all, and now they are back now that it’s in interstellar space and they are all getting older through that time, and yet they are still that same person that you can see in the archive footage. Their younger selves getting older. The film has these big reflections on time and on cosmic time. Voyager will cycle the galaxy for billions of years. One of the people at one of the festival screenings said to me “I think you made a mistake at the end of the film. You said that Voyager would orbit our galaxy once every 250 million years. That can’t be right!” He couldn’t believe that it took our sun that long to make one orbit of the galaxy, that it’s that big. There’s a lot in the film about that sort of time, the expanse of it all. It’s incomprehensible to our little biological brains. Lawrence Krauss is really good in the film at coming in with ideas that just explode. These mental ideas that make your ears bleed with the shock of the thought. And then it resets you back to the familiar…Neptune is only 3 billion miles away. That’s fine! I can now deal with that. That man had made my brain expand past its natural plasticity.”
Voyagers 1 & 2 are the only crafts that have ever visited Neptune and Uranus, and the only ones that we currently have plans to ever send there. What Emer Reynolds has captured in this breathtaking film is the beauty and the essence of the journey and its impact on the world and most especially those involved in the extraordinary achievement. A truly incredible work that shows the ingenuity of people and why it is so important to let creative thinkers dream the impossible.
“It’s important that it works on that human level. Humans are capable of great curiosity, great bravery, great dreams, and great imagination. That where we really do good. And maybe that’s what we need at this moment in time for the world.”
The Farthest is out now in Irish cinemas.