Spacecraft and Their Messages

by Paul Gilster on January 16, 2014

Just over 8300 people have now signed the petition supporting the New Horizons Message Initiative. The approach of the 10,000 figure reminds me to jog those who haven’t to stop by the site to sign the petition. For those not yet aware of the NHMI, the idea is to upload a crowdsourced package of images and data to the New Horizons spacecraft once it has completed its science mission at Pluto/Charon and any Kuiper Belt Object within range.

Jon Lomberg’s team calls the NHMI a ‘Voyager Golden Record 2.0,’ a worthy goal indeed, and I’ll also mention that the names of the first 10,000 signing the petition will be uploaded along with the images and data. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the initiative will be to see how the crowdsourcing project works to determine both the form and the content of the message. New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern has signed off on the idea, saying “I think it will inspire and engage people to think about SETI and New Horizons in new ways.”

While we work on developing this self-portrait of our species, it’s interesting to see the new ‘Messages to Bennu!’ campaign that’s developing through the OSIRIS-REx mission, in conjunction with The Planetary Society. OSIRIS-REx stands for — get ready for it — Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer. It’s a robotic mission, to be launched in 2016, that will spend more than two years at Bennu, a 500 meter carbonaceous asteroid. A surface sample will then be returned to Earth in 2023.

Osiris spacecraft

Image: When the OSIRIS-REx asteroid arrives at asteroid Bennu, it will study the asteroid from a distance before swooping down and grabbing a sample. On board the spacecraft will be the names of everybody participating in the “Messages to Bennu!” campaign. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UA.

The ‘messaging’ side of the mission involves putting a microchip with the names of people who have submitted them to The Planetary Society aboard the vehicle. You can sign up to have your name included here. Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye sees the mission of his organization as being ‘to engage the citizens of Earth in space exploration,’ an ongoing campaign that ‘Messages to Bennu!’ incorporates. We can hope that efforts like OSIRIS-REx and the New Horizons Message Initiative help to reawaken an all too lethargic public involvement with space.

The OSIRIS-REx countdown clock actually started on December 9, 2013, looking 999 days ahead to a launch in September of 2016. Principal investigator Dante Lauretta (University of Arizona) clearly likes the mission’s acronym, saying in a UA news release:

“Osiris was formed from pieces scattered across ancient Egypt, where he awoke as the bringer of life and ruler of the underworld. Our spacecraft has a similar story — it will be consist of components fabricated in locations around the world, that once together, will allow us to connect with a near-Earth object that is an accessible remnant from the formation of our solar system.”

As to Bennu, the target asteroid, it is a near-Earth object whose orbit is completed every 436 days, bringing it close to the Earth every six years. The object is considered a B-type asteroid, a subgrouping of the dark, carbonaceous C-type asteroids. These objects are useful for study because they have undergone little processing since the time of their formation. In addition to in situ studies and the sample return, OSIRIS-REx will also help us refine Bennu’s orbit by studying the Yarkovsky effect — the thermal force on the object — constraining the specific properties of the asteroid that make this effect a factor in its future trajectory. That’s useful information to have as we study near-Earth objects and potentially Earth-crossing orbits.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

James M. Essig January 16, 2014 at 13:50

Just signed up. Thanks for the link, Paul.

Cherei McCarter January 16, 2014 at 15:12

Signed and shared!! Thanks for the link!

Paul W January 16, 2014 at 17:12

Who is the message for??

Antonio January 17, 2014 at 4:26

I can’t see the point of sending a list of names inside a spacecraft.

ljk January 17, 2014 at 11:19

Putting your name on a spacecraft is supposed to make the average Joe and Jane feel like they are actually part of the mission, even if their only real contribution was their name (plus a penny or less from their tax dollars, at least for the USA).

Their name is actually on the vessel flying through deep space to another world. That may not be enough for you (or me), but it does at least bring extra awareness to a space mission that might be passed over by the general populace otherwise.

That being said, I have long advocated that deep space missions, especially those that will leave part or all of itself on another world or in deep space where they may be preserved for literally millions of years, need to have more than just a list of names.

Space is ideal for protecting and preserving information about ourselves, our society, and our world for future generations – and in some cases, the intelligent beings of other star systems. Every deep space mission should be carrying an information package that would make a future historian or ETI very happy to find.

The New Horizons Message effort is trying to make up for what was lacking on that Pluto probe when it left Earth in 2006. It should serve as an example and incentive for all future deep space missions.

The Rosetta mission to a comet where it will land a probe named Philae upon it this coming November carries a disc with samples of 1,500 human languages on it. No doubt a future historian and linguist will find this invaluable.

Thanks to the preservative qualities of space in general, the requirement for an information package on a spacecraft does not have to pertain only to those vessels heading way out in the Sol system or even beyond it. See here:

Eniac January 18, 2014 at 0:11


(plus a penny or less from their tax dollars, at least for the USA)

At $650 million for the mission, I get a little more than $2 each for every man, woman, and child in the US. Not much, but not a penny, either. What gives?

ljk January 18, 2014 at 20:35

I once read that figure in several places. I don’t remember where. In any event I would pay much more than two dollars to support a space mission. Most people pay more than two dollars for all sorts of useless junk that does them no good.

That was one minor comment in my post. I would rather the focus be on the rest of my say, which is much more important.

Alexandre January 22, 2014 at 1:14

Come on, this is pretty shy. adding just names is not really relevant, why not send a phone book ? Better, the Cassini mission sent names and signatures (including mine, I remember the signatures were captured by some early Java applets ..). much better wuld be to send images or even movies/sounds. At one megabyte of authorized data per user, 10,000 users would fit in a 10 GB USB drive weighibg less than 5 gm once the protective plastic is removed.

ljk January 22, 2014 at 11:16

Here are some articles on what was supposed to go on the Cassini CD – a sad story of what could have been…

To quote from the second linked article:

A CD is “a very foolish method if what you thought you were doing was communicating with somebody,” Mr. Lomberg says. And even if some galactic civilization does manage to conjure up software that lets it read New Horizon’s CD, what will it get for its trouble? Names. Lots and lots of undecipherable, meaningless names.

There is a CD with 14 minutes of specially composed music on the Huygens probe now sitting on Titan:

ljk January 22, 2014 at 11:28
ljk January 22, 2014 at 11:47

Extensive quotes from Benford’s book Deep Time, for good measure:

Skotch Vail January 24, 2014 at 4:35

I have heard the one penny reference in terms of the total space program. For every tax dollar spent, you are spending less than one penny for all of the space programs in the US.

ljk January 24, 2014 at 11:11

Here is a better plan for sending items of substance into deep space, in this case to Mars:

ljk February 6, 2014 at 12:32

A History of Curious Artifacts Sent Into Space


Since the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, thousands of artifacts and memorabilia have been flown into space. Some have been hoisted on brief suborbital flights, while others have been flung out of the solar system, never to return.

And of course, it’s become a fashionable — and highly commercialized — trend as of late to briefly loft products, stuffed animals, etc via balloon towards the tenuous boundary of space.

Fly a souvenir or artifact into orbit, and it goes from mundane to priceless. But a few may also serve as a final testament to the our ephemeral existence as a species long after our passing.

Here’s a look at some of the most memorable objects sent into space:

To quote:

“Scientist James Van Allen tells of deliberately placing a fingerprint on the Pioneer 10 plaque in his biography The First Eight Billion Miles.”

ljk February 12, 2014 at 21:37

What costs more than space exploration? Plenty:

Leave a Comment