Science writer Larry Klaes wrote last November with a thought about New Horizons that I’ve been pondering ever since. Klaes was troubled to learn that the spacecraft — just the fifth mission ever launched that will eventually leave the Solar System — was carrying little that could communicate information about its makers. Its major relic was a CD disc with signatures collected from those who signed up at a Web site, along with an image of the mission team. Klaes added that the CD would itself would be rendered unreadable within decades or, at most, a few centuries.
Noting that the European Space Agency had included samples of 1000 human languages on its Rosetta comet probe, Klaes went on to say, “I think this is why an independent committee should be formed working with NASA and any other space agency that plans to launch probes into interstellar space to create messages/info carriers for those future vessels. This may help to avoid giving the mission teams any extra issues beyond the usual ones in making space probes, since they don’t seem all that able or interested in working on such projects.”
The Cassini probe was another case in point. It carried a DVD housing 615,000 signatures. As the launch of New Horizons approached, the lack of a genuine message for potential extraterrestrial discoverers of the spacecraft troubled other readers, among them space artist Jon Lomberg, who wrote not long after the spacecraft lifted off, “Putting unreadable CDs filled with equally unintelligible signatures on a spacecraft has never made any sense to me, apart from the ‘Kilroy was here’ motivation that makes people gouge their names into old redwoods.”
Now the Wall Street Journal has gotten into the mix in the form of a fine article by Jason Fry. The journalist takes note of precedent: both Pioneer 10 and 11 carried plaques that included diagrams of Earth’s position in the Solar System and Milky Way, along with drawings of male and female human figures. The Voyagers carried 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph records that held images and sounds from the natural world, human speech and other information, along with a cartridge, phonograph needle and visual instructions on how to make a player.
But as Fry notes, Jon Lomberg’s attempt to get a diamond wafer aboard the Huygens probe containing human and astronomical information never made it aboard the spacecraft. And Lomberg, who had been design director for the Voyager record, points out in the article that while a phonograph record or an ‘artificial fossil’ like the proposed Huygens wafer could be read by a species finding the spacecraft, a digital recording system like that used on the New Horizons CD is arbitrary and all but indecipherable. And even if an alien species could figure it out, the result would be 435,000 meaningless names.
Fry sums the case nicely, and with an appropriate sting in the tail:
In all likelihood, space probes will be the only things of ours that endure after our species is gone and our planet utterly changed — a few inert, pitted machines will be the sole clues that we ever existed, and the ancient messages they carry our only chance to explain who we were. It’s vanishingly unlikely that any being will ever find the Pioneers, Voyagers or the New Horizons probe in the billion-odd years during which their messages will remain readable. But though imagining such a discovery borders on an act of faith, it’s not impossible. And since it isn’t, shouldn’t the only trace of ourselves be something more substantive than an unbelievably ancient PR campaign? Don’t we owe ourselves a final testament that’s something more than space spam?
Long-term thinking, anyone? We are launching artifacts of our civilization that will last longer than any human creations ever made and we seem unable to summon the resolve to speak to the distant future they will one day reach. And if the answer is that no one is ever likely to find such spacecraft, Centauri Dreams‘ response is this: Our species does things both for tangible result and also for symbolic meaning, redefining its place in the universe by the nature of its acts. The monuments of Egypt spoke not just to later centuries but to their builders, who knowingly made a statement about life confronting a mysterious universe that resonates across the centuries. Our artifacts need to speak as well.