Nestled beneath the heat shields of Voyager I is a microscopic piece of ice. It is the only water that has not yet evaporated, faded away or simply blown from the ship in the fifty-three years since the probe was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, some more than eighty kilometres from Orlando, as the crow flies. The droplet hangs between the edges of a crack in the instruments’ protective gasket. At almost the dead centre of the droplet lives a single Hypsibius dujardini. A tardigrade.
The journey beyond each of the planets in our solar system has not been kind to the little beast. Only a few degrees Kelvin around the Voyager, the sole source of heat is the radiation from the plutonium reserves which the spaceship maintains. The ice is so deeply frozen that it seems more like stone. Within this ice crystal, the tardigrade has slowly dehydrated. The body, not even half a millimetre long, holds no more than five percent water. Any sign of measurable metabolism is gone. And yet, the cells have sustained no damage in the process. The creature is almost dead, but not totally. It would only take a little heat and moisture to bring it back.
How this Hypsibius dujardini ended up on the Voyager in the first place is unclear. The tiny bug has no business being there, insofar as can be said about a micro-organism. Perhaps one of the technicians in the Jet Propulsion Lab overlooked something while cleaning the probe. Maybe one of them smuggled the creature on board. When the Voyager was first launched, the role of Planetary Protection Officer, responsible for preventing the contamination of space by terrestrial species, had not yet been invented. The H. dujardini doesn’t know that.
The probe flies at 17 kilometres per second toward the Oort cloud, having passed Saturn and accomplished its original mission in the eighties. Pluto was still considered a planet when the probe left the heliosphere in 2003. There is an ongoing debate over whether the Voyager has now left the solar system, since the precise end of the solar system is still unclear. This debate relies heavily on data still being transmitted by the probe.
H. dujardini has no eyes nor prefrontal cortex. It is doubtful that the creature was aware of the other H. dujardini also present in its droplet during the launch, or that it noticed how they all one by one dehydrated or died via DNA mutations due to cosmic background radiation. Perhaps it was the amino acids leaking from their remains that provided the tardigrade the nutrients it needed to come this far.
The thermoelectric generators have kept the instruments aboard the Voyager working for longer than expected. But in 2025, the probe’s plutonium stores will eventually expire, and the motors will fall silent. After fifty-seven years, the Voyager will lose signal, only to float aimlessly through space. Current estimates expect the probe to reach the Oort cloud within 300 years, before spending another 30,000 years traversing it. The first thing it will come across is galactic object GL-445, which it will pass by at a distance of 1.5 lightyears. At this distance, the object’s gravity is too weak to affect the Voyager’s course.
The neurological capacity of H. dujardini is very limited. Instead of a brain, the creature has only a bundle of nerves at the rear. Throughout its evolution, the species developed an astounding knack for survival, at the cost of any trace of sentience. The little beast is built primarily not to die. Not yet.
The interstellar space around the Voyager is not completely desolate, but for every piece of material there are 10,000 billion parts total emptiness. Sound does not exist in this world. Here, the sun is nothing more than a brighter star among many others. This tiny creature is flying through an endless void, stretching equally far in every possible direction. There is no true up or down, forward or backward. Between the smooth flight of the probe and the lack of any visual references, the bug has no reason to believe it is moving at all. As of 17 August 1998, Voyager I is now the furthest manmade object from Earth, a record which will not soon be broken.