Popular Science

STATIC ON THE LINE

Look up. Somewhere beyond our solar system, where it’s well below zero, pitch-dark, and the next-nearest star is a 400-century ride away, an electrical charge sparks a radio signal. The blip is faint, some 22 watts, no more power than a typical refrigerator bulb needs. The source is Voyager I. Its 12-foot antenna is calling home from the blackness.

Twenty-some hours later, after an epic interstellar journey, this rippling wave will reach Earth. By the time the ping gets here, its strength has dramatically diminished—down to about 0.1 billion-billionth of a watt. The signal’s trip across our solar system is over, but its voyage has just begun. The challenge now is greater than crossing our corner of the galaxy; it is to hear and make sense of the information within the message, the most distant whisper of our own creation.

Capturing this tiny sliver of nearly nothing takes highly trained and technical ears. Several of them. For Voyagers I and II, they take the shape of three 21-story-tall dishes—each with a diameter of 230 feet and a heft of nearly 3,000 tons—positioned evenly across the globe. Constructed specifically for deep-space listening, they turn skyward, ready to receive the probes’ daily status reports.

One of the dishes, dubbed DSS-14, looms over a lonely patch of Southern California’s Mojave Desert, approximately 60 miles from the nearest highway. It nestles in a small valley, between low craggy mountains—the remnants of longdead volcanoes. To get anywhere near it, you pass through two layers of security gates at Fort Irwin military base. An extensive

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