If you want to send a message to the stars, Jon Lomberg is the man to consult. A gifted artist and creator of the gorgeous Galaxy Garden in Kona, Hawaii, Lomberg may be most famous for his frequent work with Carl Sagan, including the celebrated Cosmos series. But it’s his involvement with the Voyager Interstellar Record, a project for which he served as design director, that makes him so uniquely qualified to embark on a new messaging effort, the One Earth: New Horizons Message project.
Let’s talk about Voyager and how the new message differs. 115 images and 27 musical selections went into the Voyager record, along with abundant audio of the life and natural sounds of our planet. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk included spoken greetings in fifty-five languages beginning with Akkadian (a language of ancient Sumer) and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. The ninety minutes of music can be played at 16 ? revolutions per minute using a cartridge and needle enclosed within the record’s protective jacket.
We knew that the Voyagers would eventually leave the Solar System, which was why putting a message from humanity on them suggested itself. In the absence of a current mission being built to do the same thing, reasoned Lomberg, why not upload a message to the one we already have in progress, the New Horizons probe to Pluto/Charon? The plan is to create the message not through a small committee but a worldwide crowd-sourced effort in which people will build a self-portrait of Earth. Over 10,000 people from more than 140 countries signed the original petition urging NASA to send the Message. The team hopes that thousands more will submit ideas for its content.
Image: Jon Lomberg, project director for the One Earth: New Horizons Message effort.
If the Voyager record carried pictures and sound, we could do the same for New Horizons, sending all of our content to the spacecraft once it has completed its encounter with Pluto/Charon and any later Kuiper Belt Object the spacecraft may be able to study. Software and 3D files are another possibility, limited only by the memory constraints of the New Horizons onboard computers, which have been under active study by the One Earth technical team. Unlike the Voyager and earlier Pioneer messages, this is a message that can be updated and improved as long as the spacecraft is in communication with the Earth, which could be a matter of decades.
A news release dated today announces the start of an online fundraising campaign designed by Fiat Physica, which specializes in raising money for science projects. Readers are encouraged to visit the site to view a video on the project. From the release:
We have determined that the message is technically feasible. We are confident of a message lifetime of tens of millennia in the computer memory, and can take steps to increase the message’s durability beyond that. Our submission website will be constructed by the iScience group at the University of Koblenz, under the direction of Ulf-Dietrich Reips. One main goal of the fundraising is to gather the funds required to build this site. We hope to have the submission site ready before the July encounter. We will announce soon when the project is ready to receive submissions.
Messages like those aboard Voyager and New Horizons are designed for the people of Earth as much as any extraterrestrial beings that may, in some remote future, encounter them. Having completed its mission, New Horizons will leave the Solar System in the general direction of Sagittarius, toward the center of the Milky Way, though not in the direction of any specific star. The odds of interception are obviously minute, and the data will be sent to the spacecraft on standard radio links connecting Earth with all NASA spacecraft, representing no increase in the risk of detection beyond messaging traffic that is already in progress. In other words, the One Earth Message, although designed to be found by aliens, almost certainly will not be.
Why, then, send it in the first place? Lomberg and his eighty-strong advisory board believe that creating a message to represent all of us is a priceless educational and cultural opportunity, allowing us to step back and view our ‘pale blue dot’ in a whole new way. Shaping such a message so as to be intelligible to non-humans is itself a challenge with abundant learning opportunities. Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, is a strong supporter of the One Earth Message, as is the New Horizons team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Please have a look at the One Earth Message site and consider getting involved.
“This will be a message from and to the Earth,” says Jon Lomberg. “The very act of creating it will be a powerful reminder that we all share the same, small planet. We truly are one Earth.”