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Faces from Earth: A Personal View

by Tibor Pacher

My friend Tibor Pacher quotes from Hermann Hesse on the front page of his PI Club site: “To let the possible happen, the impossible must be tried again and again.” No one works harder at pushing the boundaries of the possible in terms of public outreach on interstellar topics than Tibor, whose efforts have ranged from the Faces from Earth project (championing messages from humanity on deep space missions) to the MiniSpaceWorld contest (soliciting ideas and designs for space-themed exhibits). In today’s essay, Tibor looks back at a memorable evening in his youth, and ponders the sources of inspiration even as he gears up Faces from Earth for a new campaign based on the Voyager missions and the deeper meaning of their ‘golden records.’

I remember a wonderful starry night at Lake Balaton in Hungary, some forty years ago in my childhood. In those times street light was much more sparse in the evening than today, even in such holiday locations as Balaton. We watched an open air movie and were on the way back to our vacation home. I’ve forgotten the movie but not the starry night with its blinking jewels.

That time I had already seen the fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion – the now legendary Space Patrol series started on 17 September 1966 in Germany and came in early 1968 to Hungary – and some of the Apollo landings as well. Perhaps this night was the first one in my life as a then wannabe astronomer when I found myself pondering whether we could get to the stars one day and wondering what we would find there if we did.

Later, I became a theoretical physicist, studied cosmology, and tried to figure out if in our world there might emerge a hyperdrive like the one in Asimov’s Foundation universe (I did not succeed, unfortunately, but neither have I given up the search). Then my paths led me to very different, much more earthbound fields like business consulting on financial processes, which secured my living. I have seen lots of interesting companies, met people from very different countries from Kazakhstan to Georgia, Singapore to Sweden and Bosnia-Hercegovina, but after all this, I came to the conclusion that this kind of job is something which cannot satisfy my needs to learn more about the Universe.

So early this millenium I started once again to dig deeper into the really interesting things, to rediscover my early intellectual loves, topics like interstellar spaceflight and life in the universe. My notes tell me that it was the 2nd of July 2004 when the name peregrinus interstellar was born, which I now regularly use for my celestial wanderings. (The term “peregrinus” means “wanderer”, “stranger”, or “alien” and originates in ancient Rome, denoting people not having Roman rights. It is also the root for the word “pilgrim”. In Hungarian, the word “peregrinus” was also used in earlier times to mean a wandering student).

Now, six years later, I often remember that starry night forty years ago at Lake Balaton. These seemingly distinct events mark perhaps the two most relevant cornerstones on the way to my current projects, amongst them Faces from Earth. Surely like the old wanderers, looking at the stars I enjoy the beauty of the heavens, and, as many others, often pause for a moment to think about our place in the Universe. I also believe that it is good for a wanderer to be prepared for strange encounters, whatever nice places he approaches.

Humanity has made its first steps on the long path to the stars, having sent out the first ambassadors, the Pioneer and the Voyager probes, in the 1970’s. On these four probes there is a “visiting card”, the Pioneer plaques, and the Golden Records – attempts to tell as much as possible about the makers of the spacecraft, should they be found by some other species, or perhaps by our own descendants, in the future.

Since our vessels are actually uninvited wanderers into unknown territory, as Larry Klaes’ says, “…[this] makes it vitally important that some kind of relevant information about ourselves is placed on each and every spacecraft sent into the Milky Way.” Within the framework of Faces from Earth we aim to help in preparing our future interstellar wanderers – and all of us, who stay at home but perhaps will experience an encounter with E.T. – with information on Messages from Earth – history, rationale, possible effects on humanity, organizing events to educate the public about space and astronomy, and promotion of deep space missions supporting the creation of the next artifact messages to put on board.

To quote Larry again:

“The importance of being in essence respectful citizens of the galaxy and giving some kind of valuable legacy to our children is a driving force in the creation of Faces From Earth. It is designed to bring together people from multiple fields and disciplines across human culture to more fully represent the beings and items of our world to the Universe on all future deep space missions.”

You probably will understand why one of the Faces from Earth projects is especially important for me. This is the campaign series “E.T. Are You Out There?”, which introduces the notions of possible extraterrestrial life and interstellar messages to school students, and constitutes a part of our attempt to “give some valuable legacy to our children.” On May 19 of this year, we came together at 5:30 PM – school scheduling and some unfortunate circumstances prevented a couple of students from coming, so we had a familiar meeting with Arianna, Corvin, Louisa, Michel and Vincent (12 to 14 years old) in my home in Molfsee, next to Kiel, “the sailing city”. However, being such a small group we had the opportunity to go into lots of details, checking information in the Internet immediately – about the Viking experiments on Mars (searching for life indicators), the Grand Tour of the Voyagers (the rare lineup of the outer planets in the Solar System), and, of course, the chances to talk to E.T., to name but a few – before the exciting time of creating the pictorial messages and the preparation of the balloon payloads arrived.

Luckily, we had two balloons for each message :-) We went then to the “launch pad” – a couple of minutes walk to a gentle hill – and the countdown (we’ve got it, Space Patrol Orion) started: … drei … zwei… eins… zero: “Guten Flug” (good flight) – and the Molfsee messages began their journey. It is very improbable that anybody will ever read them, but we hope that the children, not only the five in Germany, but the other approximately 100 we reached on three continents with our first campaign in May 2010, will be proud of their first symbolic message to E.T. and inspired to learn more.

Our second campaign “E.T. Are You Out There? – The Voyager Campaign” has just started on 5th September 2010, the 33rd anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch, and runs until 26 September. We hope that many young school students and their educators will remember the celebration of the Voyagers, with their own messages painted and perhaps released in some enjoyable way, just as the kids did in May.

As you can see in our summary video of the May campaign, to send a message to a hypothetical E.T. can be a deeply human endeavour.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Antonio September 7, 2010, 14:51

    Da quel che ho potuto capire, utilizzando il traduttore di “Google”, mi sembra una bella iniziativa.

    Sono rimasto piacevolmente colpito dalla colonna sonora che accompagna il video presente in questo articolo.

    Chi è l’autore di questo brano musicale? Qual’è il titolo del pezzo musicale che accompagna il video? Vorrei saperne qualcosa di più…

    Scusate, per questa domanda non del tutto pertinente all’articolo, ma vorrei poter reperire il pezzo musicale, anche se solo per un ascolto in “streaming”…

    In ogni caso, complimenti al sig. Gilster, per l’originalità degli articoli quì pubblicati, mai banali, ma sempre molto stimolanti.

    Un saluto a tutti voi, da Antonio.

  • Paul Gilster September 7, 2010, 15:39

    Antonio’s message via Google Translate:

    From what I understand, using the translator of “Google”, it seems a good initiative.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the soundtrack accompanying the video in this article.

    Who is the author of this song? What is the title of the piece of music accompanying the video? I want to know something more …

    Sorry, this question is not entirely relevant to the article, but I wish I could find the song, if only to listen to streaming …

    Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Gilster, the originality of the articles published here, never banal, but always very stimulating.

    Greetings to all of you, Antonio.

  • Paul Gilster September 7, 2010, 15:40

    I’ll have to let Tibor answer your question about the soundtrack, but I’m sure he’ll have all the information. And thanks, too, Antonio, for the kind words.

  • Thomas Fogarasy September 8, 2010, 4:39

    I’ll answer that for Tibor :)
    Antonio, the track was purchased on Jamendo Pro. The band is called “I Am Not Lefthanded”. Here is a link for you:
    I guess this is what you were looking for.

    Thank you for the great article Mr. Gilster!
    Thomas, F.f.E.

  • Tibor September 8, 2010, 4:40

    Thomas, who created the video – our Creative Lead on the Faces from Earth Board – will post the info.



  • alma wad September 8, 2010, 16:05

    the starry nights around lake balaton are really wonderful and inspiring – i was brought up in that area – there is magic there in fact .. hope your plans will bring success to the earth creatures … I am sure all this huge universe was not created for the single earth people …

  • Antonio September 8, 2010, 19:39

    Ringrazio Thomas Fogarasy per avermi dato la possibilità di ascoltare e scaricare(ho visto che si può scaricare questo pezzo musicale gratuitamente)quel pezzo musicale che tanto mi aveva colpito.

    Tra l’altro, questa musica mi ricordava quella che era stata creata da un musicista, credo francese, Julien Civange, e che era stata immessa in un cd che era stato messo nella sonda “Hygens” scesa sulla superficie di Titano, qualche anno fa.

    Il pezzo musicale si chiamava “Lala” e se qualcuno vuole ascoltarlo, ho trovato un sito dove si può ascoltarlo.
    http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8093039&media=swf&activetab=Track Listing

    A me pare che ci sia una certa similitudine, con quello di cui avevo chiesto informazioni a tutti voi, che leggete questo sito.

    Ma, magari, è una mia impressione.

    Grazie per avermi aiutato.

    Saluti da Antonio.

  • Paul Gilster September 8, 2010, 20:20

    Antonio’s message via Google Translate:

    Thank Thomas Fogarasy for giving me the opportunity to listen and download (I saw this piece of music can be downloaded for free) so this piece of music that struck me.

    Among other things, this music reminded me of what had been created by a musician, I think French, Julien Civange, and had been placed in a CD that had been placed in the probe “Hygens” dropped on the surface of Titan, a few years ago .

    The piece of music called “Lala” and if anyone wants to listen, I found a site where you can listen.

    http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8093039&media=swf&activetab=Track Listing

    It seems to me that there is a certain similarity with what I requested information from all of you who read this site.

    But maybe it’s my impression.

    Thanks for helping me.

    Greetings from Anthony.

  • ljk May 6, 2011, 0:24


    Farther Along

    Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

    Explanation: What is humanity’s most distant spacecraft? Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 now holds that distinction at 17.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. That corresponds to 16 light-hours or 117 Astronomical Units (AU). This graphic shows the position of Voyager 1 relative to the outer solar system (top and side views) along with other distant spacecraft contenders. Next most distant, Pioneer 10 is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun, though on the opposite side of the solar system from Voyager 1. Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11, both also well beyond the orbit of Pluto, are 14.2 billion and 12.4 billion kilometers from the Sun respectively. Still outbound for Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft is presently 3 billion kilometers from the Sun and will encounter the Pluto system in July of 2015.

    All these spacecraft have used sling-shot style gravity assist maneuvers to increase their speeds through the outer solar system. Voyager 1 is moving the fastest though, escaping the solar system at about 17 kilometers per second. Still operational, both Voyagers are headed towards the outer boundary of the solar system, in search of the heliopause and the beginning of interstellar space.

  • ljk October 25, 2012, 16:27

    About Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures project to place a disc with 100 representative images of humanity aboard a communications satellite:

    Since 1963, more than eight hundred spacecraft have been launched into geosynchronous orbit, forming a man-made ring of satellites around the Earth. These satellites are destined to become one of the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet.

    Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures is a project that marks one of these spacecraft with a visual record of our contemporary historical moment. Paglen spent five years interviewing scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be.

    Working with materials scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paglen developed an artifact designed to last billions of years—an ultra-archival disc, micro-etched with one hundred photographs and encased in a gold-plated shell.

    In Fall 2012, the communications satellite EchoStar XVI will launch into geostationary orbit with the disc mounted to its anti-earth deck. While the satellite’s broadcast images are as fleeting as the light-speed radio waves they travel on, The Last Pictures will remain in outer space slowly circling the Earth until the Earth itself is no more.

    The main Web site:


    The publisher’s Web site on the book:


    The blurb:

    Human civilizations’ longest lasting artifacts are not the great Pyramids of Giza, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, but the communications satellites that circle our planet. In a stationary orbit above the equator, the satellites that broadcast our TV signals, route our phone calls, and process our credit card transactions experience no atmospheric drag. Their inert hulls will continue to drift around Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs them about 4.5 billion years from now.

    The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created.

    Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan’s Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.

    The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations.

    Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.

    Copub: Creative Time Books

    An article by Time LightBox with samples of the photographs:


    To quote:

    Sourced from governmental agencies, libraries and artists (including Paglen’s own work), many of the 100 undated pictures circle around the topics of science, technology and the environment. Many suggest that the miraculous scientific and technological advances mankind has achieved—the very ones that enabled us to launch a satellite that will orbit for millennia—are the means to our end.

    Other images seem spectacularly random: One picture shows gloved hands holding Leon Trotsky’s brain, while “A Study in Perspective” by Ai Wei Wei shows the dissident artist flipping the Eiffel Tower the bird. Extended captions to many of these images are available to us in a catalogue, but one wonders how the future aliens would make any sense of them. The inscrutability of these images happens to also be part of the point.

    The sometimes oblique images chosen for The Last Pictures were partly inspired by the mysterious visual remnants of ancient civilizations, like the cave paintings in Lascaux, and the moai, for which Easter Island is famous.

    Those artifacts have never entirely yielded their meaning, and yet they were made relatively recently, in terms of the “deep time” of space. “The notion that the message could actually mean anything at all seems ridiculous…but the probability of people on Earth thinking about it here and now is guaranteed,” writes Paglen in the book that accompanies the project.

    And it’s true. It seems inherently valuable, if desperately sad, for us to visualize a time when we won’t exist. The processes, with which we are making ourselves extinct, are still ongoing, after all.

    Some more good links:


    To quote:

    The Last Pictures is part of a long tradition of public intersections of art and space, with direct reference to NASA and Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1977, a project that attached to space probes phonograph records containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life on earth and suggesting the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrial life forms and/or future humans.

    As much as Paglen’s project draws on past attempts at universal communication beyond the confines of time, it also recognizes the inevitable impossibility of this task—that such communication can only be partial, fragmentary, and quasi-intelligible.

    Aware that The Last Pictures may never be discovered, Paglen also intends this project to serve as a stark reminder of humanity’s fragility and as a meditation on our ultimate fate.

    Some details and artwork on the satellite that will carry the art project on disc for eons in geosynchronous orbit, EchoStar 16:


    The artist’s Web site:


  • ljk October 26, 2012, 10:00

    A Temporal Map in Geostationary Orbit: The Cover Etching on the EchoStar XVI Artifact

    Authors: J. M. Weisberg, T. Paglen

    (Submitted on 22 Aug 2012)

    Abstract: Geostationary satellites are unique among orbital spacecraft in that they experience no appreciable atmospheric drag. After concluding their respective missions, geostationary spacecraft remain in orbit virtually in perpetuity. As such, they represent some of human civilization’s longest lasting artifacts.

    With this in mind, the EchoStar XVI satellite, to be launched in fall 2012, will play host to a time capsule intended as a message for the deep future.

    Inspired in part by the Pioneer Plaque and Voyager Golden Records, the EchoStar XVI Artifact is a pair of gold-plated aluminum jackets housing a small silicon disc containing one hundred photographs.

    The Cover Etching, the subject of this paper, is etched onto one of the two jackets. It is a temporal map consisting of a star chart, pulsar timings, and other information describing the epoch from which EchoStar XVI came. The pulsar sample consists of 13 rapidly rotating objects, 5 of which are especially stable, having spin periods < 10 ms and extremely small spindown rates.

    In this paper, we discuss our approach to the time map etched onto the cover and the scientific data shown on it; and we speculate on the uses that future scientists may have for its data. The other portions of the EchoStar XVI Artifact will be discussed elsewhere.

    Comments: Accepted for publication in Astronomical Journal

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO); Solar and Stellar Astrophysics (astro-ph.SR)

    Cite as: arXiv:1208.4637 [astro-ph.EP]
    (or arXiv:1208.4637v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Joel Weisberg [view email]

    [v1] Wed, 22 Aug 2012 22:04:47 GMT (1256kb,D)


    Here are several online interviews with the artist of The Last Pictures project, Trevor Paglen, and other relevant sites:









  • ljk November 8, 2012, 19:58

    Engravings for the E.T. in All of Us

    By Robin Cembalest

    Posted 09/27/12

    A small silicon disc on a space-bound satellite is a giant leap for public art–whether or not the aliens actually get it.


  • ljk November 13, 2012, 14:35

    Pages on the public debate that took place between Trevor Paglen and Werner Herzog on The Last Pictures Artifact:


    To quote:

    The conversation came back, frequently, to questions about whether aliens would ever find the satellite, much less be able to decipher the pictures. (“Do the aliens have eyes? Do they care about art? I wouldn’t overburden them with art,” Herzog counseled.) But for the artist as well as the filmmaker, the images ultimately work best as a mirror. Paglen asked, ultimately, “When we look at something that is alien to us, that is beyond our comprehension, what do we see but ourselves?”





  • ljk November 14, 2012, 16:05

    An interview quote from this link:


    NT: It is a project that speaks to people millions of years from now while simultaneously saying that such a notion is impossible and absurd. To flip the condition on its head, perhaps you don’t want a grand gesture in space, but isn’t it really that anyway? You don’t want it to be perceived that you are trying to speak to people in the distant future, but there are, in the end, photos on the disc. You have to sort of nod your head at its potentially being a grand gesture after all.

    TP: Yes. The Last Pictures is a paradoxical project. Its theme is paradox and the materials it uses are paradoxical. It is a montage of images whose materiality is such that it will probably last until the sun expands and engulfs Earth in fire and plasma five billion years from now. At the same time, those images are essentially meaningless, not only in the future, but in the present. Very few of the images in the montage “speak themselves” or reveal the things that they gesture toward. The book contains explanatory captions and texts about the images that tell the viewer what they’re looking at; the disc in orbit does not.

    The Last Pictures is a grandiose gesture that is partly about the suicidal nature of grandiose gestures, but it doesn’t stand outside its own form—it’s not a notional project or a textual critique of another project, it really is a montage of images in orbit for billions of years, and it really will still be there when humans are long gone and the future dinosaurs begin to look up at the night sky.

  • ljk November 20, 2012, 16:06

    The EchoStar XVI comsat is on its way to a fifteen-year career transmitting television to the USA, and the attached EchoStar XVI Artifact is on its way to begin a much, much longer and ultimately far more important mission for all of future humanity or maybe even other intelligences:


    An article from earlier today with more images and information:


    The official EchoStar XVI launch site with a very nice image gallery:



  • ljk November 21, 2012, 3:40



    0355 GMT (10:55 p.m. EST Tues.)

    Mission success! ILS says the fifth burn of the Breeze M upper stage was completed as planned, and the EchoStar 16 satellite separated on time at 0343 GMT (10:43 p.m. EST).

    “The ILS Proton vehicle which consists of three stages, used a standard ascent profile to place the orbital unit (Breeze M upper stage and the EchoStar XVI satellite) into a sub-orbital trajectory,” ILS said in a statement. “From this point in the mission, the Breeze M utilized a standard five-burn mission to perform the planned mission maneuvers to advance the orbital unit first to a circular parking orbit, then to an intermediate orbit. After a 9 hour and 12 minute mission, the Breeze M successfully released the EchoStar 16 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit.”

  • ljk November 21, 2012, 3:48


    EchoStar satellite in orbit after successful launch



    Posted: November 20, 2012

    An International Launch Services Proton rocket and Breeze M upper stage on Tuesday orbited a communications satellite for the U.S.-based Dish Network direct broadcasting service.

    Credit: Roscosmos

    After lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1831 GMT (1:31 p.m. EST), the 19-story Proton launcher soared east from the historic space base and released a Breeze M upper stage on a suborbital trajectory.

    The Breeze M stage ignited five times to place the EchoStar 16 satellite in an elliptical transfer orbit. The rocket targeted an orbit with a high point of more than 22,200 miles, a low point of 1,512 miles, and an inclination of 29.5 degrees.

    ILS and the Russian space agency announced the Breeze M stage released the EchoStar 16 payload more than 9 hours after liftoff. The launch was successful, officials said.

    The launch of EchoStar 16 came the same day ILS announced the immediate departure of its president. Frank McKenna, who led the U.S.-based launch services firm since October 2006, is being replaced by Phil Slack, the company’s vice president and chief financial officer, according to ILS.

    ILS, which is owned by Russian Proton contractor Khrunichev, did not specify a reason for the management change.

    Two Proton/Breeze M flights have failed since August 2011 on Russian government missions conducted under the management of Khrunichev. Although ILS had no part in the botched launches, commercial Proton missions use the same vehicle.

    The director general of Khrunichev resigned in the wake of the of the most recent Proton/Breeze M failure in August.

    ILS has announced two commercial launch contracts this year for the Mexsat 1 satellite and a payload for AsiaSat of Hong Kong. The missions are due for launch in 2013 and 2014.

    Photo of the EchoStar 16 spacecraft at the Space Systems/Loral factory in Palo Alto, Calif. Credit: Space Systems/Loral

    EchoStar 16 will raise its orbit to an altitude of 22,300 miles over the equator in the next few weeks. The craft will also extend its solar panels and activate its communications gear for testing.

    The satellite, which weighed 14,660 pounds at launch, was manufactured by Space Systems/Loral. The spacecraft will be positioned at 61.5 degrees west longitude in the geostationary belt for its 15-year design life.

    It will be leased by EchoStar Corp. to Dish Network, a leading provider of direct-to-home television programming in the United States.

    “With the successful launch of EchoStar 16, ILS Proton has launched five of the satellites in the EchoStar fleet,” Slack said. “We are very proud to have served EchoStar in their expansion over the past ten years.”

    EchoStar 16’s launch marked the 10th Proton flight of the year.

    Two more ILS launches are on tap before the end of 2012.

    The launch of Yamal 402, a communications satellite for Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom, is scheduled for liftoff Dec. 8. The Satmex 8 broadcasting satellite will launch on an ILS Proton rocket in late December to serve Mexico and Latin America.

  • ljk November 27, 2012, 13:05

    I expected better journalism from The Wall Street Journal:


    It is certainly an example of how Snow’s Two Cultures still pervade our society. Hopefully The Last Pictures can make a bridge or two here.

  • ljk November 30, 2012, 2:47

    A video interview with Trevor Paglen about The Last Pictures from Creative Time on YouTube:


  • ljk November 30, 2012, 18:08

    Art Show in Space Could Last Billions of Years

    A piece of artwork headed into space this week may be on display for the next few billion years.

    A collection of images called “The Last Pictures” is hitching a ride on a communications satellite today (Nov. 20) that may well orbit the Earth until our planet’s predicted fiery death 5 billion years or so from now, according to the the project’s creator.

    “‘The Last Pictures’ tells a kind of story to the distant future about where these spacecraft came from and what happened to the people that made them,” artist Trevor Paglen, who spent almost five years assembling the collection, told SPACE.com.

    Full article, plus some of the 100 Last Pictures, here:


    To quote:

    Whether or not there will be an audience in the future is also a question on which no one agreed. According to Paglen, one participant thinks that people cleaning up space junk in a few hundred years will find it, while others think it won’t be found for millions of years.

    Paglen, however, doesn’t think it will ever be found.

    “I think it will orbit Earth forever, until the sun turns into a red giant.”

  • ljk December 6, 2012, 11:03

    From The New Yorker

    November 20, 2012

    Final Frontier

    Posted by Jonah Weiner

    Just after midnight on Wednesday, in southern Kazakhstan—early this afternoon, Eastern time—the communications satellite Echostar XVI took off from pad 39, Site 200, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

    A spacecraft leased to the Dish Network and headed for an orbit some twenty-two thousand miles above the earth, Echostar XVI piggybacked a Proton Breeze M rocket, but that wasn’t the only piggybacking going on.

    Keen-eyed observers watching the launch at Baikonur (or online, via live stream, as I did) might have noticed a small, incongruous form affixed barnacle-like to the satellite. It was a gold-plated aluminum cannister containing a miniscule silicon wafer imprinted with a hundred images: a piece by the artist Trevor Paglen, who decided several years ago to mount an exhibit, of sorts, entitled “The Last Pictures,” in outer space.

    [Um, really? Besides the fact that the cover of the EchoStar XVI Artifact is about the size of a serving plate on a satellite roughly the size of a school bus, I am assuming it was all encased in a protective launch shroud atop the rocket, which means unless there was a minicamera somewhere on or near the comsat aimed right at the golden disk, there is no realistic way it could be seen from afar and certainly not via livestream. I am guessing the author was being somewhat poetic here, but it sure doesn’t come off that way to anyone with a clue in this regard. – LK]

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Paglen—who completed “The Last Pictures” with the assistance of the public-art organization Creative Time, M.I.T., and a host of researchers, scientists, and philosophers—was inspired in part by the Pioneer Plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, audio-visual mementos of life on earth that NASA, working with Carl Sagan, had attached to deep-space probes in the seventies, on the chance that smart aliens with eyes and ears might discover them. But whereas those gestures had been optimistic (you might say quixotic), Paglen wanted his to be morose: a gravestone rather than an olive branch, or as he put it, “More Stanislaw Lem than Buzz Aldrin.”

    Paglen engraved his cannister’s cover with a 2012 map of pulsars, which can be used, in theory, to date the object, but other elements of the work tweak such notions of universal communication, like an image Paglen included of a dictionary of Volapük, a would-be lingua franca that temporarily rivalled Esperanto. In the magazine, I wrote that:

    Viewed end to end, the hundred photographs—a mushroom cloud, an industrial chicken farm, Trotsky’s brain—form a sombre chronicle of modern human history. Paglen sees “The Last Pictures” as pushing forward the same underlying concerns as his secrecy pictures: the limits of visual communication, the annexation of space.

    At an event to publicize “The Last Pictures” in September, at Bryant Park, the filmmaker Werner Herzog—who has made movies about both aliens and cave paintings—interviewed Paglen about the project, and both men agreed that its nominal goal was ridiculous. The work’s true function was to be a mirror: “We’re talking to ourselves when we talk about aliens,” Herzog said. (Referring to an image of Japanese children grinning in a nineteen-forties internment camp that Paglen had included in the cannister, Herzog added, in the conversation’s Herzoggiest moment, “The universe knows no smiles—it is hostile and ugly.”)

    One morning last spring, I joined Paglen on the M.I.T. campus, where he had an artist’s residency, and where he and a graduate student named Adam McCaughan would spend the next several hours fashioning a dozen silicon wafers.

    The actual space-bound artifact had already been affixed to Echostar XVI (Creative Time had finagled permission from the satellite’s parent company, Echostar); Paglen was at M.I.T. to make duplicate wafers that he could exhibit and perhaps sell to collectors. (“I’ve got to figure out how to actually make some money with this thing,” he told me later that day.)

  • ljk December 6, 2012, 11:16


    Trevor Paglen: The Last Pictures

    The Artist Reveals the Final Earthly Moments of his Cosmic Latest Work

    American artist and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen travels to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to document the launch of the communications satellite EchoStar XVI in today’s special reportage.

    Unlike the 1000s of other craft pointed towards the stars, this one harbored a message for the distant future in the form of an innocuous capsule bolted to its exterior and containing the multi-disciplinary creator’s latest work, The Last Pictures.

    Commissioned by New York’s Creative Time, the object contains a silicon wafer micro-etched with 100 archival black-and-white images, selected as photographic documents of recent human history.

    “Images do not make arguments the same way a scientific paper makes an argument,” Paglen says of his choice of medium. “The way they communicate is much more impressionistic and affective, and by playing with those relationships I was able let the images do what they want to do.”

    The disc is encased in a gold-plated aluminum cover with further imprints on its surface that maps when—not where—it comes from. “The project is more about going into time than into space,” explains its architect.

    The satellite now appears in the night sky as a fixed, manmade glowing sphere, joining Earth’s orbital rings for the rest of time. An ironic wink at extra-terrestrial beings who may one day come across it, the archive functions as a cave painting in space, a prescient epitaph for an extinct civilization, or as Paglen puts it, “a silent film for the future”.

    [Some images are included in a slide show with this brief piece. Not all of them are the usual ones shown by other articles on this event and subject. I am waiting for all of them to be available online, or at least a comprehensive list.]

  • ljk December 11, 2012, 10:47

    Trevor Paglen’s ‘The Last Pictures’ Launches into Outer Space Today; Watch It Live

    By Stephanie Murg on November 20, 2012 9:05 AM

    Some 43 years ago this month, an art-loving (and still anonymous) Grumman engineer smuggled a ceramic wafer imprinted with sketches by artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg onto the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission.

    Today Trevor Paglen adds to that fledging extraterrestrial museum with “The Last Pictures,” a public project presented by Creative Time. The artist worked with materials scientists at MIT to develop his visual time capsule: a silicon disc encased in gold and micro-etched with 100 photographs selected to represent modern human history.

    Full article here:


    Details on and images of the Moon Museum supposedly on a landing leg of Apollo 12’s LM descent stage:


  • ljk December 11, 2012, 11:02


    Memo from the Baikonur Cosmodrome: Artist Trevor Paglen writes in about launching 100 photos into outer space

    By Jed Lipinski

    1:19 pm Nov. 27, 2012

    At 1:31 pm Estern Standard Time on the Tuesday right before Thanksgiving, the New York-based artist Trevor Paglen successfully launched 100 tiny black and white images of planet earth into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

    Paglen, who lives in Manhattan and is represented by Metro Pictures Gallery in Chelsea, is probably best known for his ethereal photographs of covert military bases and spy satellites. He received a commission for the project from the public arts organization Creative Time.

    As he monitored the spacecraft with a small group of people at Baikonur, Paglen took a moment to email us about the artistic challenges the project had posed.

    “On one hand, the idea of sending pictures off into the vastness of space and time seems nonsensical,” he wrote. “On the other, I felt like the gesture carried an enormous amount of responsibility.”

    The images, Paglen wrote, were an attempt to “document the transformations humans have made to the Earth’s surface, ecology, biosphere and climate.”

    To make it into space, they’d been etched onto a wafer-sized silicon-and-ceramic disk, stored inside a gold-plated aluminum canister, and then bolted to the side of the communications satellite EchoStar XVI.

    By now, the satellite has joined the more than 800 other satellites now in geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of around 23,000 miles. Since objects in geosynchronous orbit never fall back to earth, astronomers say, the disc will continue circling the planet until the sun finally consumes them both, billions of years from now.

    In an recent profile in the New Yorker, Paglen explained that the “conceit of the project is that we’re making something that is going to explain to aliens why these dead spacecraft are here.” But the project has also has a terrestrial version, in the form of a coffee table book published by the University of California Press.

    Asked what future humans or other forms of life might make of photographs of the Suez Canal, Texas dust storms and Armenian refugees smiling in knee deep water, he wrote: “I think they will appear to anyone else in a similar way that cave paintings appear to us. They seem to tell us an enormous amount and at the same time very little.”

    “I really hope that the pictures are not too personal,” Paglen added. “’The Last Pictures’ is meant to create a framework to think about the long-term effects of human civilizations, and the transformations we’ve made to the world around us. Having said that, every person in the world would have done the project differently, so in that sense I guess it bears my creative stamp.”

    Regardless of what the photos mean, getting an art project launched into space is an achievement in itself. In a short documentary about “The Last Pictures” on Creative Time’s website, Paglen explains that, after some initial setbacks, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak was finally able to persuade EchoStar to provide the host vehicle. Among other enthusiasts, the concept found a sympathetic ear in Chris Ergen, the laid-back son of billionaire and EchoStar Corporation co-founder Charles Ergen (he appears in the video at around minute 7:22).

    This was Paglen’s first rocket launch, an experience he described as “in a word, sublime.” He added that the Russian Proton rocket was initially designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile.

    “I’m glad they never used it for that purpose,” he wrote.

    The launch, which was broadcast live on EchoStar’s website, had been delayed after a rocket failure in August. As he watched the rocket ascend, Paglen expressed some amazement that the project had finally come to fruition.

    “Technically, it really is rocket-science,” he said. “For myself and the team at Creative Time, it was a lot to learn in a very short amount of time. Thankfully, we had a lot of help from the Visiting Artist Program at MIT, who invited me there to develop the technical side of the project. We also had an amazing designer, Mason Juday, who didn’t sleep for about a month trying to meet our deadlines.”

    As part of his photography work, Paglen, a former prison activist, once traveled to Afghanistan to photograph a secret C.I.A. prison where Khaled El-Masri, a wrongfully imprisoned German citizen, had been allegedly tortured and interrogated. But travel was restricted at the launch complex, which he noted was leased from the Russian government. He had no plans to shoot photographs in Kazakhstan.

    Asked whether he might someday like to travel into outer space himself, Paglen wasn’t so sure.

    “I think it would be a beautiful view, but I’m not someone who thinks humans will ever colonize other planets or spend much time in space,” he said. “Anything humans can do in space robots can do better. At this point, manned spaceflight is mostly a symbolic gesture.”

  • ljk December 20, 2012, 14:15

    satellites of history

    By Adam Rothstein / October 7, 2012

    William Grassie presents us with a thought experiment:

    What has humanity discovered in the last 10,000 years of human civilization that would be most useful in rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of a global catastrophe?

    As Grassie notes, the human species has been reduced to only 1000 to 10,000 breeding pairs before. Taking it for granted that another crisis will eventually occur, we can assume that that at least some of our descendants will make it through to spawn another day (To assume that we won’t make it through is not unreasonable, but also leaves us with considerably less of a speculative exercise.)

    Any number of aspiring futurists, science-fiction authors, preppers and Dark Mountaineers can present us with a point-by-point plan of how to survive a species-threatening cataclysm, the true effectiveness of which can only be judged in practice. So let us leave survival up to those who will need to hack it, and instead ask what can we do now to make things a bit easier for our post-apocalyptic children of the future?

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Trevor Paglen, a conceptual artist, recently produced his own version of the satellite disc, that will be put aboard the Dish Network communications satellite Echostar XVI. It contains 100 engraved images, titled The Last Pictures by the artist.

    Werner Herzog, who engaged the artist in a public conversation at the annoucement of the project, was skeptical that anyone would ever view the photos in the future. Robin Cembalest, in the above-linked essay on the project, hints that perhaps, in a way, this is the point. The author draws attention to the image of Paul Klee’s drawing, Angelus Novus.

    On the orbiting disc, the reverse of the drawing is visible, showing only the tag, and not the drawing itself. This seems to be a clear reference to the most well-known commentary on the artwork, by Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

    Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” (front)

    A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

    Well played, Mr. Paglen. It seems that when it comes to cataclysms, the true students in need of historical lessons are not the alien species of the future, but those of us in the present. We are ourselves so fixated on re-enacting the catastrophe of our own history, that we cannot fully turn around to face the future. And it seems that it will always be necessarily so.

  • ljk December 21, 2012, 10:57

    A Time-Capsule Launched into Space for Aliens to Find When All the Humans Are Gone

    By Austin Considine

    Nov 30 2012, 10:47 AM ET

    Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all traces of our stay here, hundreds of dead satellites will remain in orbit around the earth. Along with these pictures.

    If humanity’s earthly tenure isn’t fated to end with the Mayan calendar next month, it is certain to end someday. It’s the sort of thing artist and author, Trevor Paglen, thinks about a lot. He knows, for example, that we homo sapiens have occupied the earth a mere 0.004 percent of its 4.5 billion-year history. He knows the sun will one day expand, torching our planet in the process. And he knows that life on earth is a few million years overdue for its next sweeping extinction event. We may someday build lives on other planets; here, we’re on a fixed-term lease.

    Still, as Paglen’s latest multimedia project, “The Last Pictures,” underscores, we humans have created a legacy to outlast us: Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all trace of our inhabitance, hundreds of dead satellites orbiting the planet will remain, immune to the terrestrial effects of rust, erosion, and decay — the last artifacts left to say “we were here.” A dubious bequest, perhaps.

    But for Paglen that ring of future space junk seemed the obvious place to put a public art installation: an archive of 100 black-and-white photographic images, built to last for billions of years, launched aboard a communications satellite into outer space from a site in Kazakhstan last week.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    “This is not a project that’s supposed to explain to aliens what humans are all about and be the definitive record of human civilization,” Paglen said. It is, he added, “a collection of images that explained to somebody in the future what happened to all of the people who built the dead spaceships in orbit around the earth. And how they killed themselves.” (Or perhaps were killed?)

  • ljk January 4, 2013, 17:33


    AO On Site – New York: Trevor Paglen Discusses “The Last Pictures” project with Werner Herzog at Creative Time pavillion, New York Public Library

    September 21st, 2012

    Trevor Paglen discussed his latest project, The Last Pictures, with filmmaker Werner Herzog on the Bryant Park terrace last night. The project, an ultra archival disc that has been micro-etched with 100 photographs and encased in gold, was commissioned and presented by Creative Time. Poet Tracy K. Smith introduced the dialogue with a reading of her work, and Creative Time Chief Curator, Nato Thompson, made introductory remarks.

    Image: Werner Herzog at The Last Pictures event presented by Creative Time, photo by Art Observed

    Paglen’s project is a culmination of five years of conversations with scientists, artists and philosophers to determine what would be the most important 100 photographs to send into the universe to be found and interpreted by another intelligent species. His work “blurs disciplinary and formal borders to construct unfamiliar ways to see and interpret the world around us”.

    Image: Trevor Paglen speaking at The Last Pictures event at NYPL

    The two discussed various images and the idea of life on other planets, and how our existence and understanding relates to what we see and perceive. The discussion was moderated by Paul Holdengräber, the Director of LIVE from the NYPL.

    Although they both agreed that humans will not ever be able to populate other planets successfully, they discussed the importance to humans to be able to imagine other life forms within the universe as a way of reflecting back upon ourselves and upon our own understanding, as opposed to the images serving some purpose to another life form.

    The idea of perceiving was at the core – Herzog’s film, The Flying Doctors of East Africa, where villagers in Uganda are given upside down posters and although they receive an explanation of the orientation, many cannot grasp that the same image can appear in both instances. The Western doctors are unable to perceive that this is due to the fact that people, whether in different cultures, or even from one generation to the next within the same culture, do not see the same things.

    In fact, as Paglen explains, the famous NASA image, View of rising Earth about five degrees above the Lunar horizon, taken by the Apollo 8 spacecraft (below), has become “iconic in the ecological movement. This is an image of us imagining ourselves being detached from the earth… but it is almost an anti-ecological image”, as we are essentially seeing Earth being left behind.

    Image: View of rising Earth about five degrees above the Lunar horizon via Nasa

    Paglen chose the images for various reasons – he said that it began as a sort of archive, with the decision not to include images of humans; however the project evolved “like a silent film or poem… so many of the images are related in theme and content but also in their formal relationship”. He was interested in transformations of earth’s surface, and found that there was a certain poetry in the selection of the images, comparing it to editing a film.

    Image: Image from Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, “Proton Rocket Launch” via Creative Time

    Image: Image from The Last Pictures – “Old Operating Theater, St Thomas Church” via Creative Time

    Paglen’s artifact will launch into geostationary orbit with the disc mounted to its anti-earth deck later this year. He has also published a book in conjunction with the project.

  • ljk January 4, 2013, 17:40


    Paglen, Trevor 2012 The Last Pictures, reviewed by Rob Sullivan

    Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2012, 208 pages, $27.95, £19.95 hardcover. ISBN 9780520275003 (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520275003)

    There is so much to carp about regarding The Last Pictures, the new book by artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. The entire notion of the book—or rather, of the project, because The Last Pictures ismuch more of a project than simply a book, the book merely being an adjunct to the project itself—is fraught with all the trappings of grandiosity inherent to any effort to create a monumental memento intended to convey to the future the essence of a civilization. For Paglen and his collaborators are enmeshed in a kind of quixotic gambit doomed to failure: the ultimate recording and translating of one age to another. And yet, once every last item in a lengthy itinerary of complaints has been duly filed and noted, there is still, rather surprisingly, something thrilling about The Last Pictures: it almost works in spite of its own vastly overwrought pretensions.

    Paglen has long been fascinated with communication satellites and the ‘new geographies’ they create as they orbit through the Clarke Belt, the atmospheric ring through which such objects circle the Earth, connecting ‘noncontiguous places across the globe to one another’ (page 11). According to Paglen, it is generally believed by scientists that the hulls of such satellites will ‘stay in orbit for unimaginably long periods of times’, rotating around the planet like discarded flotsam (page 4). In effect, these satellites are artifacts of the present sent into the future, which led Paglen to the realization that any message sent to the future would best have its delivery secured by being posted on one of these vehicles. Paglen et al. decided to transport an archive of Earth into ‘deep time’ (page 187) via a silicon disk attached onto the surface of communication satellite EchoStar xvi, so that beings (i.e., aliens) millions and even billions of years from now may be able to comprehend what life on this planet was like circa 2012. The question Paglen et al. are faced with is what should be on this disc. This of course also raises the equally momentous decision about what should not be on the disc.

    Having placed himself into the position of being the arbiter for the legacy of humanity, Paglen then coyly disclaims any sense of extreme gravitas about this task: ‘I decided that the artifact I was planning could only be a grand gesture about the failure of grand gestures’ (page 12). Well, no, Paglen didn’t decide this: such a failure is innate to the very project itself. For such a project cannot help but be such a failure, despite any attempt to fend off the heavy freight of such a gesture, no matter how adeptly self-deprecating that attempt may be. In other words, it is a grand gesture in and of itself, not just a gesture about the failure of grand gestures. For how could it not be? After all, The Last Pictures (the project, not the book) is meant to be an archive containing the key to the unraveling of a civilization which has disappeared. The degree of difficulty to the piece of legerdemain Paglen is attempting tempts hubris beyond its bounds. And so its full force comes crashing down.

    Such a downfall is prodded along by the method by which Paglen assembled this archive of the one hundred photos judged to be the most suitable conveyors of Earth’s meaning at this present time. For reasons that never seem to have warranted one moment of self-reflection, Paglen relies only on collaborators whose resumes would qualify them as the elite of the elite of America’s Creative Class. Paglen litters the book with references to well-known academics, as if the inclusion of such worthies would guarantee the probity of the project. And so a question of class and status arises. Why should cognitive scientists teaching at UC San Diego and curators from MIT’s List Visual Arts Center have access to the decision-making process of this project but not waitresses and truck drivers, let alone poets, painters, and filmmakers? This may sound like a facetious protest, but if this project is to be a record of all humanity intended for the ages, what exactly is the criterion for inclusion within its selectors? Is it only the highly educated who are allowed on board? Does one’s resume have to bulge with advanced degrees in order to have an opinion about the meaning of the planet and, therefore, the contents of its archive? There’s a miscarriage of democracy here, especially if the disc containing the archive actually does become the record of the present to the future.

    But there’s a hierarchy of an altogether different kind also assumed to be paramount here: the visual sense as the mediator of the messages sent to the future. The interpretive texts provided for the majority of the photographs included in the archive reflect the fact that images are rarely stand-alone entities, as they frequently require the accompaniment of a narrative for them to be fully comprehensible. But of course the narrations offered up in the book are mediated by vision as well. This leads one to familiar questions, such as that of what is required on a cognitive basis to “read” an image, and why should a picture be privileged over say, a sound, or a smell, or the further question of why one would even think that one sense operates without information routing into the brain from other senses, and so on. And so there’s a lack of democracy in the sensate domain as well.

    Moreover, the logical grounds upon which Paglen is basing his presumption that the satellites in the Clarke Belt are destined to be the last remnants of humanity appear to be rickety, at best. A very odd sentence reveals the trap Paglen’s assumptions have set for him: ‘Like other spacecraft, they [communication satellites] will far outlast anything else humans have created’ (page 11). Well, sorry to be the one to report this, but spacecraft have not outlasted all that much that humans have created, at least at this point in time. Perhaps they will have, at some other point in time, but to willy-nilly presume that they will makes explicit a trust in science and history which is totally unwarranted by the record of humanity to this date. For, and here the tempting of hubris once again makes an appearance, such an assumption is fraught with the same kind of peril of those who wagered on the longevity of the theory of phlogiston.

    Paglen wastes no time in stoking hubris to a fever pitch when he states in the introduction to The Last Pictures that this is ‘A modest collection, to be sure, but one designed to last far longer than the oldest cave paintings. A collection designed to transcend the Anthropocene and to transcend deep time itself. A collection of pictures designed for the time of the cosmos. A collection of pictures that very well may be the last’ (page viii). Once again, this passage, behind its almost farcical pomposity, reveals a logical impasse requiring explication. If the archive is intended for deep time yet it also transcends deep time, then what or who or when exactly is it intended for?

    This reflects a haphazard thinking endemic to the entire enterprise of The Last Pictures. This sloppiness is revealed again in the intellectual bind Paglen has placed around the project. When, on the one hand, Paglen states that the message contained in the archive ‘would not be a grand representation of humanity’ (page 11), but, on the other hand, he is engaged in sending out into ‘a deep time which transcends deep time’ a collection of photos which cannot help but be packaged as exactly such a representation, then what conclusion can one come to except that some sort of entirely faulty line of thinking has revealed itself as ratiocination clearly gone amuck?

    The only thing that saves this project from being anything but a complete intellectual disaster is the collection itself. The photos almost save the day, but not quite. Ranging from reproductions of Athanasius Kircher’s cat piano to electron microscopic photographs of Martian meteorites and from images of policemen holding hands in Nepal to ‘computers on parade’ in East Berlin circa 1987, the images in toto are remarkable. Yet, in the final analysis, they are defeated by the encumbrance of the intellectual brackets surrounding them. The claims encompassing the photos doom the images to be mere remnants of immodesty. The archive ends up reflecting, more than anything else, this moment’s overweening temptation of hubris on the part of the intellectual elite. But perhaps that is a suitable record of our times.

    Rob Sullivan, Department of Geography, UCLA, 1255 Bunche Hall, Box 951524, Los Angeles, CA90095, U.S.A.