Williams College Astronomer's Photo Left the Solar System

contact information: Prof. Jay Pasachoff, [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., September 1, 2017—NASA is celebrating the 40th anniversary of two spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, that were launched toward Jupiter and Saturn, which they reached in 1979 and 1980, respectively. Voyager 2 went on to Uranus and Neptune, passing Neptune in 1989. Since then, they have continued outward, one even leaving the solar system.

Each of the Voyagers contains a golden record that contains 115 photographs, greetings in many languages, and samples of music from Bach to Chuck Berry. The images are encoded in analog form.

One of the photographs was taken by Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff. “Carl Sagan had the idea for the golden record, and our then-recent Williams College alumna Wendy Gradison was assisting him,” said Pasachoff. “I submitted a few photographs on various topics, and two were chosen. The picture that was ultimately launched, in digital form, was taken from a helicopter on my honeymoon. We were approaching Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the photo is in a geology sequence since it shows the reef, trees, ocean, beach, and other terrestrial features.” Pasachoff knew Sagan from their overlapping time at the Harvard College Observatory, Pasachoff as an undergraduate and Sagan as a professor.

“I get requests periodically for my copyright permission to use the photo,” said Pasachoff, “most recently for a Kickstarter campaign that has succeeded in making a facsimile edition to mark the anniversary.”

A second photo, showing the birth of his first child, did not make the final cut, NASA selecting a line drawing instead.

The Heron Island photograph appears on the official Voyager website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:


and is the quadruple-sized image at the right side of the sixth and seventh row.

Copyright is noted as part of the caption of each of the photos.



Messages from President Jimmy Carter and from the UN Secretary-General also appear.

Why the golden record? While Sagan thought it was actually to make citizens of Earth reflect on our common humanity, it has been phrased as something for aliens to perhaps pick up one day. “If they are smart enough to find the spacecraft,” said Pasachoff, “they will be smart enough to figure out how to play the record.” As Sagan said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.”

“Not only is it fun to have a photo I took leave the solar system, but also I am proud that on listings of the photos the image two down from mine is by Ansel Adams, perhaps the best nature photographer of all time,” said Pasachoff. (See, for example, a listing at https://everything2.com/title/Voyager+Golden+Record.)

The Voyagers are now over 100 times farther from the Sun than our Earth is, with their radio signals taking over 17 hours to reach us.

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977. Voyager 2 was launched 16 days earlier, but on a slower trajectory, so reached Jupiter slightly after Voyager 1.

contact information:

Prof. Jay Pasachoff, [email protected]

Recent non-technical books (see links at http://solarcorona.com):

The Sun by Leon Golub and Jay M. Pasachoff (Reaktion Press and U Chicago Press, 2017)

Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets by Jay M. Pasachoff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 4th edition, 2016 printing with eclipse and Pluto updates)

The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium by Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko (Cambridge University Press, 4th edition, 2014)



http://totalsolareclipse.org for Pasachoff’s eclipse expeditions

http://solarcorona.com for Pasachoff’s published books


Williams College’s Hopkins Observatory, of which Pasachoff is Director, is the oldest extant astronomical observatory in the United States.

Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.