The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

BBC4’s Spectacular Vista of our Voyage to Neptune and Beyond.

For a long time in the 20th century it was widely believed that we would never be able to travel through space further than to our nearest neighbour, Mars. The fuel needed to counter the gravitational pull of the sun and planets would make that impossible.

But when a brilliant PhD student solved one of the great maths’ problems, the whole of the solar system suddenly opened up.

The problem being; how do you work out a space ship’s trajectory when its position is being constantly affected by the huge gravitational pull of the sun to one side, and an enormous planet to the other? Every new position will then be differently affected by both, and in constantly varying ways.

Once that had been solved however, they suddenly realized that you could use that massive gravitational pull as a lasso to fling your space craft off in any direction you liked. Furthermore, you’d be able to do so without using up any fuel whatsoever. Your momentum could propel you indefinitely.

Then another grad student spotted that the four biggest, outer planets, Jupiter, by far and away the biggest, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2004) would all be aligned between 1975-7. We would have to wait another 200 years for the next chance.

So in 1977 the two Voyagers, I and II were launched. And over the next 12 years they sent back extraordinary data and photographs of our four biggest gas planets and their couple of hundred moons.

When Voyager II eventually arrived at Neptune, some 3 billion miles away, they needed to be able to calculate the precise moment it passed the planet’s North pole, to within one, single second! The photographs that resulted were spectacular.

And that it was thought was that. But then Carl Sagan, Nasa’s de facto spokesman had an idea. Why didn’t they get Voyager I, as it sped away from us, to turn around and take a photograph of us from the edge of our solar system. The result is a photograph with the Earth seen so small that it takes up less than a single pixel (see below).

On the one hand, it’s a timely reminder of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. But on the other, it’s a celebration of how extraordinary we are. We sent a machine nearly four billion miles and 13 years into the future to take a photograph and send the information back to us, so that all of us can have a look at it today.

Voyager I is 11 billion miles away as we speak and has just reached the outer reaches of our solar system. It’s still sending back data, which it does using a millionth of a billionth of a watt. And the data that it sends takes 15 hours for the speed of light to reach us.

And all of it built in 1977. That, by the way, was the year Apple was launched.

BBC4’s Voyager: to the final frontier is yet another in what is fast proving to be a golden age of science programming from the BBC (see for instance their recent doc on the Antikythera mechanism, The 2000 Year Old Computerhere.)

It struck exactly the right balance between calmly providing the facts, and quietly looking up in awe. And if at all you can, watch it.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music.

The Earth seen from Voyager 1.