Leave the lights on when you go

Voyager 1
Voyager 1. Photograph: Nasa/Getty Images

[Inspired by an article in the Guardian about Voyager 1 and 2]

Krishna Patel-Ettah could have blinked and missed the whole thing. He was trying to restore his filters on the company data feed following the latest power outage at the data center. After an hour and little progress, he was just about to give up and go make a drink. As he was turning away, he saw an odd icon in data stream at the bottom of his screen and absently tapped it. When it opened, he stopped in mid turn, stunned at what had appeared. It was an ancient visualization, something that even he, as the company archivist, rarely saw. A black background and strings of characters, no images, no graphs, just lines of data.

He sat and stared for a time as he realized what he was looking at. He did a number of cross-checks and some research to verify it. In front of him, on his screen, was the first data to come from Voyager 1 in thirty years.

“But that’s not possible,” his fellow archivist, Goodwill Omu said, looking over Krishna’s shoulder. “It’s…”

“I know,” Krishna interrupted, “I know. It was shut down June 15, 2022 because the power source wasn’t strong enough to support the last monitor. I did do my research on the Voyagers, after all.”

Goodwill looked at the data. “What is this? Part of it looks like readings from some monitor.” He pointed to a string of numbers at the end. “But these… What are they?”

Krishna shrugged. “Who knows? I think you’re missing the point. The fact there is any data is amazing. It could be a string of 1’s for all it matters.”

Gradually, more people congregated around Krishna’s screen, both virtually and physically. As the day wore on, theories and counter-theories spun into existence and flamed out. Though all this, a few facts were established. Goodwill confirmed that the data was valid and was from a listener that had some legacy code which was designed to receive data from the satellites. Apparently, the code had been ported from version to version, framework to framework over the decades without anyone realizing it. After poring over old records, Krishna was able to identify at least part of the data as ambient magnetic radiation levels. There was a little over five seconds of this data with what appeared to be random noise on either side.

When the head of research heard about the data, her first thought was to send a message to Voyager to see if it was really awake. Krishna and Goodwill had to teach the research team how to send messages to the satellite. One of the research team complained it was like trying to learn how to speak Old English. Finally, they were able to send a signal.

Days passed in silence. After 72 hours, everyone agreed that there was little chance that the signal had reached Voyager, that it had received it and had been able to respond. The initial excitement over the discovery faded. The research team was reassigned. Krishna and Goodwill went back to their regular jobs.

In time, the experience faded from even Krishna’s memory, until one day he was looking for a project for his apprentice, Grace Yu, to work on and he came across a presentation he had done about the data. He stripped out the data and forwarded it to her with a note. “See if you can work out what this data is.” He figured it would be a good test of her research and analytical abilities.

Krishna absently opened Grace’s results. At first, he did not understand what he was looking at. He was about to lose his temper at her obvious failure to understand what he had expected from her, when he looked at the report more carefully. Without the reference of Voyager, she had treated the data as a single set and analysed it accordingly. The view she constructed revealed an obvious structure in the data, one he had never noticed before, made up of complex, yet regularly repeating clusters of characters and numbers.

Very slowly it dawned on him that what Voyager had sent was not some random data that from one of its monitors that had somehow been temporarily energized. It was a message, deliberately sent by someone or something who had come across Voyager as it drifted in space.

A message from Grace popped up. “How did I do?”

“Fine,” he replied.

“Great. By the way, where was the data from? It was difficult to parse, but I think I got it, in the end.”

Krishna paused, not sure what to say, not sure what do. He looked at her conclusions. “Yes, you were right. Well done.” Krishna closed the report, got up, put on his coat and left his workshop. It was midday and the walkway in front of the building was flowing with people. He immersed himself in the crowd and started walking.

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