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:

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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.

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The Earth seen from Voy­ager 1.