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Speaking Across Time and Space

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • FlyingSinger January 24, 2006, 14:05

    Good post. That really is shame that so little thought has gone into the messages carried by these more recent probes. I have Carl Sagan’s book on the Voyager interstellar record (Murmurs of Earth, seems to be out of print but used copies are available on Amazon). I recall that he wrote that this was as much a “message to ourselves” and a sort of mirror on humanity as it was a message to possible alien finders in distant space. The process of deciding on what to do for this special sort of time capsule was really valuable in my opinion. I also recall the ridiculous controversy over the earlier Pioneer 10/11 images because they depicted a nude man and woman, and some objected to NASA sending “filth” into space – sometimes the image in a mirror on humanity isn’t so flattering!


  • Administrator January 24, 2006, 14:18

    The beauty of the exercise is exactly what you talk about here — we are forced to decide what we want to represent us. I’m told that one of the reasons any sort of record was voted down for New Horizons was the worry over political correctness, and the certainty that no matter what was chosen, some people would object. Boy does *that* say something about us!

    Bruce, I don’t have Murmurs of Earth here, but if you get the chance, drop me a note with the Sagan quote re ‘a message to ourselves,’ as I seem to recall it (maybe he talked about it on COSMOS?) and would love to post it.

  • robot_guy January 24, 2006, 21:32

    There is a lot more information about us stored in these probes than simply these CDs or gold-plated copper records. These things are so mundane that we don’t even think about them: things like Phillips screws, the printed circuit boards, the code stored in EPROMs, the physical makeup of the solar panels, even the passband of the CCDs onboard say far more about us than a few hundred thousand signatures ever could.

  • Gregory Benford January 27, 2006, 2:16

    I wrote a whole long piece on this, and working with Lomberg on Cassini, in my DEEP TIME. It’s a pity nothing moves NASA to do better; it’s all about momentary PR. But then, they do so little well these days…

  • Administrator January 27, 2006, 8:42

    It’s also my understanding that the silicon wafer that was to have flown aboard Huygens was a Benford concept, and it’s a fascinating one. The question of just how to jog NASA into looking beyond the momentary is thorny indeed, but it seems to me that a diamond wafer stuffed with images of our civilization is exciting in and of itself. Surely the agency could have reaped a PR reward from it.

  • ljk October 20, 2008, 15:13

    Almost two years after being launched towards Pluto,
    the New Horizons team reveals a few more of the items
    placed aboard the space probe, only the fifth human
    vessel ever to be sent out of the Sol system into the
    wider galaxy:


    To quote:

    During the dedication ceremony, we all learned from PI Alan Stern that the spacecraft was carrying a number of items, some of which had previously not been formally announced: some of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes, state quarters from Maryland and Florida, two CDs – one with over 400,000 names – the other with family photos of the New Horizons team, the US postal service stamp from 1991 saying “not yet explored”, a concept design for another stamp noting the New Horizons mission, and a piece of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One.

  • ljk October 23, 2008, 21:28

    Pluto Mission News

    October 23, 2008


    The PI’s Perspective: Nine Mementos to the Ninth Planet

    You might have heard that New Horizons was carrying several commemorative items from Earth on its voyage to Pluto and beyond — some of them have even been featured on the New Horizons Web site. But do you know what they are?

    For the first time, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern covers the complete list of nine mementos placed on the spacecraft.

    Read the full story here, or visit:


  • ljk October 28, 2008, 23:54

    Alan Stern discussed why a Pioneer-style plaque or Voyager-style
    record was not included on New Horizons here:

    To Pluto, with postage


  • ljk March 1, 2012, 10:22


    Competition: Design a new Pioneer space plaque for 2012

    By Olivia Solon

    27 February 12

    On 2 March in 1972, Nasa launched Pioneer 10, an unmanned robotic space probe that was sent to explore the outer solar system.

    Pioneer 10 featured several on-board instruments for examining the cosmos, but it also carried a gold-anodised aluminium plaque in case it was ever found by intelligent life-forms from another planetary system.

    To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch, Wired.co.uk is inviting designers, artists and amateur doodlers to create a modern interpretation of the plaque for a competition. The best entry will win an HP Z1 Workstation and a copy of Avid Studio.

    The original plaque — attached to the space probe at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan — carried nude figures of a human male and female, along with several symbols that were designed to provide information about the location of Earth –as you can see in the image in this post.

    If you look at the human figures, the man’s hand is raised as a sign of goodwill and to show off his opposable thumb (damn that’s a nifty digit). Sagan wanted the couple to be holding hands, but realised that any extraterrestrial looking at the plaque might perceive them to be a single creature. A scale drawing of the Pioneer behind the humans indicates their relative size.

    The woman appears to be hermetically-sealed below the waist just like Barbie. It has been claimed that this was due Sagan’s fear that conservatism at Nasa would prevent the plaque from being allowed on the Pioneer and so the “short line indicating the woman’s vulva” was removed from the original design.

    The symbols are not intuitive, to say the least, but then how do you communicate in a way that isn’t born out of thousands of years of Earth-based, human cultural fine-tuning? There is a schematic representation of the “hyperfine transition” of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. This spin-flip transition of a hydrogen atom from the “spin up” electron state to the “spin down” state can specify a unit of length, which is 21 centimetres. This is then used as the scale unit of measurement on the rest of the plaque.

    There is a pattern on the left of the plaque showing 15 lines radiating from the same place. This shows the relative distances of pulsars to the Sun. The bottom of the plaque features a diagram of the solar system, with a small picture of the spacecraft and its trajectory past Jupiter.

    Forty years on and Wired.co.uk is calling upon our talented readers to design a plaque that represents human life on Earth in 2012. It should provide a visual snapshot that would help extra-terrestrial life forms understand what human beings look like and what wonders they could expect to find should they stumble upon Earth. Beyond that, it’s up to you. It can be serious or silly, realistic or impressionistic.

    You have until 12 March 2012 to get your entry in, after which we will post a gallery of the best entries which we’ll put up for public vote. The winner will be announced at the end of March 2012.

    To find out how to enter the competition and more about the prizes on offer, visit the competition page: