In 1895, Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) produced the first human-made radio waves capable of traveling beyond the Earth, so radio evidence of the existence of human civilization has now traveled 128 light years from Earth. Assuming a stellar number density in the solar neighborhood of (7.99 ± 0.11) × 10−2 stars per cubic parsec1, Earth’s radio emissions have already reached about 20,000 star systems.
The most distant physical human-made object, however, is the Voyager 1 spacecraft, now over 160 AU from the solar system barycenter (SSB), a distance of almost 15 billion miles. That certainly sounds impressive by human standards, but that is only 0.0025 light years. As the distance of Voyager 1 from the solar system barycenter is constantly increasing, you’ll want to visit JPL Horizons to get up-to-date information using the settings below for your date range of interest. Delta gives the distance from the SSB to the Voyager 1 spacecraft in astronomical units (AU).
This still-functioning spacecraft that was launched on September 5, 1977, flew by Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and flew by Saturn on November 12, 1980, is now heading into interstellar space in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, near the Ophiuchus/Hercules border.
Given Voyager 1’s current distance (from Earth), a radio signal from Earth traveling at the speed of light would take 22 hours and 8 minutes to reach Voyager 1, and the response from Voyager 1 back to Earth another 22 hours and 8 minutes. So, when engineers send a command to Voyager 1, they won’t know for another 44 hours and 16 minutes (almost 2 days) whether Voyager 1 successfully executed the command. Patience is indeed a virtue!
Thanks to three onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs)2, Voyager 1 should be able to continue to operate in the bone-chilling cold of deep space until at least 2025.
In about 50,000 years, Voyager 1 will be at a distance comparable to the nearest stars.
1The Fifth Catalogue of Nearby Stars (CNS5)
Alex Golovin, Sabine Reffert, Andreas Just, Stefan Jordan, Akash Vani, Hartmut Jahreiß, A&A 670 A19 (2023), DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202244250