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One Earth Message: A Digital Golden Record

The recent reminder of spacecraft longevity that the Voyagers have given us on their 40th anniversary keeps the memory of their famous Golden Records fresh. After all, only the passage of time — and a lot of it — can degrade these human artifacts, and they carry sights and sounds of our planet specifically chosen to represent us.

Now Jon Lomberg, who was design director for the Golden Record, has thoughts of doing something similar with another long-haul spacecraft, the outer system explorer New Horizons, and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to make it happen.

Clearly the method has to change, given that New Horizons launched without artifacts designed to carry information about our species, other than the obvious message implicit in its own technology. The plan is to take advantage of the spacecraft’s computer memory, or in this case, a few hundred megabytes out of a 4 GB memory chip, which was state of the art in the days when the New Horizons design was finalized. What Lomberg is calling the One Earth Message would be uploaded to the spacecraft through the dishes of the Deep Space Network.

Image: Jon Lomberg, with the Golden Record he and Frank Drake designed for the Voyager probes. Credit: Jon Lomberg.

Like the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, we are talking about a spacecraft carrying a message comprising our own view of our species and our civilization. To say that Lomberg has experience at this kind of thing is to remind us not just of the Voyager work but also the Visions of Mars DVD, a project Lomberg led for the Planetary Society, and one that is now on Mars aboard the Phoenix lander. He is also a co-designer of the Mars sundials that three Martian rovers have carried to the Red Planet.

And I think we can put out of our minds the idea that Lomberg sees the One Earth Message as a form of METI — Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Like the Golden Record, the OEM is really about perspective on ourselves:

“I am confident that NASA will seize this opportunity to follow the lead of all four previous spacecraft that have left the solar system and include a message from humanity. We will never know if there is an ET audience, but for the human audience that participates it can be a profoundly moving experience to seriously contemplate communicating with the Cosmos. I now pursue this project as a legacy to my mentors Carl Sagan and Frank Drake.”

The One Earth Message has to fit within the memory constraints available to New Horizons, and obviously would be uploaded after the mission’s science objectives have been met. But images and sounds of the kind found on the Golden Record are in play, and conceivably software or other kinds of digital information, depending on what the crowd-sourced message will become after it has been developed through a collaboration around the globe. The prospect of contributors sending original photography or music is an added enticement for their participation.

Global interaction is what Lomberg’s Kickstarter campaign is meant to support. The campaign seeks the funds to design and launch a platform on the Internet that will be the fulcrum of the One Earth Message project, with submissions to begin in 2018. The plan is for the various images and sounds to be freely submitted over the Net and then chosen through a process of online voting, to create what Lomberg calls ‘a self-portrait of Earth in the second decade of the 21st Century.” The proposed upload date, assuming NASA agrees, is 2020, but none of that can occur without the website development to create the message itself.

Image: New Horizons’ current position along its full planned trajectory. The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled since launch; the red indicates the spacecraft’s future path. Positions of stars with magnitude 12 or brighter are shown from this perspective, which is slightly above the orbital plane of the planets. Credit: JHU/APL.

New Horizons is currently moving at 14.24 kilometers per second, enroute to Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. The craft is 3.96 AU from its KBO target and 39.01 AU from the Earth, with a round trip light time of 10 hours, 48 minutes as of 13 September at 1100 UTC. For those who, like me, are obsessed with deep time, New Horizons is headed in the direction of Sagittarius, a route that points it toward the center of the galaxy.

Will another spacecraft carry what Arthur C. Clarke called “The Songs of Distant Earth”? There are those who believe that all missions that leave the Solar System should carry some kind of compilation reflecting their builders, and we now have an opportunity to craft a digital message for a mission that left home without one, assuming NASA formally approves the project. Creating the website mechanism and producing the actual message described in the Kickstarter campaign, Lomberg believes, will be the best way to gain NASA’s nod.


{ 17 comments… add one }
  • ljk September 13, 2017, 15:49

    Time in a Bottle

    What time capsules for the future say about how we see ourselves today.

    By Rebecca Onion

    The time capsule is a concept perfectly pitched to an elementary school student’s sense of wonder. I loved them as a kid—thinking about them, reading about them, burying toys and little messages in bottles in our backyard. Now that I’m older, though, the whole idea reeks of a particularly American self-centeredness in relationship to the passage of time.

    “Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish,” writer Matt Novak told Mental Floss, “in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what’s inside.”

    Over the 19th and 20th centuries, American time capsules went from containers for civic virtue, to carefully curated museums of popular culture, to catch-alls, capturing the overwhelming amount of stuff that drifts through a consumer society.

    Looking at the evolution of time capsule contents, it becomes clear that our ideas about which items future historians could use in order to figure out how we lived have changed drastically. But through it all, we’ve retained a touching faith in our own interestingness.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    The first recorded effort to bury a true time capsule in America took place at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, spearheaded by a Civil War widow named Anna Diehm. While working as the publisher of the weekly Our Second Century, Diehm had the idea for the so-called Century Safe and executed it at her own expense. Diehm’s vision for what should go into the fireproof safe, to be opened a hundred years later, came straight out of the 19th-century interest in social structure, hierarchy, and worthy citizenship. The Century Safe contained photograph and autograph albums with the images and signatures of what the newspaper called “the most eminent men” who were alive in 1876. Though Victorians loved an autograph album, the people who opened the capsule in 1976 might have been forgiven for finding themselves less than thrilled.

    Another, more interesting capsule in this genre, the 1900 Detroit Time Capsule (opened in 2000), contained letters from prominent citizens describing the present state of life in Detroit and offering predictions as to its future, along with photos of businessmen, business cards, and rosters of organizations such as the Merchants and Manufacturers Exchange.

    By the middle of the 20th century, the American concept of items that were important to send forward into the future had shifted from the prestigious to the everyday. The time capsule buried in Queens during the 1939 World’s Fair heralded the change.

    As one time capsule expert, Knute Berger, told the New York Times in 1989, the 1939 capsule buried by the Westinghouse Electric Company was an attempt “to do what we wish other civilizations had done—manufacture an archaeological find.”

    Rather than picking through garbage dumps and piecing together pot shards, the theory went, the diggers of the future could happen upon a midcentury time capsule and find everything they needed in one place. This notion appealed to a certain type of midcentury mindset that perceived the workings of modern industrial America as fascinating and wonderful. Americans could bring electricity to rural areas, cure terrifying diseases, and build highways; why not also gift future historians with the perfect representation of their world?

  • Alex Tolley September 13, 2017, 20:17

    I’d still like to know what approach they intend to make the contents decodable. Firstly, 100MB is not much space to store data, especially pictures and sounds. Most of what we store today is encoded to reduce space. For example, images are rarely bitmaps. But even if they were, how would an alien know how we would encode the pixels (8 bit bytes, using binary notation in a certain direction, a byte for each of 3 colors – RGB in that order – and possibly a 4th for opacity) and picture information (picture dimensions, width and height, start and end of image). You could add a viewer, but how would ETI use it unless it could still play on the probe, which it cannot as there is no output screen. Pictures are likely better than words as once decoded successfully, ET with similar eyes to ours (an assumption) could interpret a well-designed image without further work. If we add sound files, that requires a different encoding scheme, that like video, requires playback speed information.

    Let’s ignore ET and just assume it will be a future human or human designed robot that recovers the information. In that far future we will probably not use the encoding schemes or hardware we use today. Decoding the information might be just as hard for our descendants as for ET, although with likely a more compatible sensory system.

    This seems like a difficult problem to me.

    Perhaps Jon Lomberg could update us with a piece on how they are tackling this problem as they have just a few years to pick a mechanism.

    • Paul Gilster September 13, 2017, 20:49

      Good idea, and I’ll pass it along.

      • ljk September 14, 2017, 8:50

        In addition to the question of will anyone be able to read the data (assuming they even know where to look; this is no shiny golden record or plaque, after all), seeing as we cannot read human made computer data from machines just a few decades old, I want to know how long the data will last before cosmic rays destroy it?

        I read somewhere it might be a few hundred thousand years, but I would like concrete stats. If it is just a few hundred thousand years, that really limits the time this information package is going to be useful to anyone.

        Oh well, at least they will have a Florida quarter and a stamp to look at…


  • Gregory Benford September 13, 2017, 21:09

    On time capsules, might consult my 1999 book, DEEP TIME: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 13, 2017, 22:38

    For Jon Lomberg:
    Please, see http://i4is.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Principium17%201705170945.opt.pdf (pp. 30-35), about “Keepers”.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 13, 2017, 22:42
  • Ronald September 14, 2017, 3:34

    Off-topic, but relevant:

  • Mark Zambelli September 14, 2017, 6:17

    I can appreciate the carrier for the upload will not be as powerful as a directed METI attempt but I can’t help thinking about where the beam will be heading once it passes New Horizons… it’s a pretty crowded starfield towards the centre of the Galaxy and I wonder just how far the message will travel before it becomes too attenuated to pick up by any potential ETIs living closer in than us. Their dish-size plays a role obviously but I like the idea that some ETI may oneday pick up this faint signal as it washes over their research radio dishes aimed out of their system in the direction of the Galactic-rim.

  • ljk September 14, 2017, 10:47

    How much trouble would it really have been to put a copy of the Pioneer Plaque on the New Horizons probe? The diagram of the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes on the plaque even resemble NH!


    The NH team made the effort to put the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh on the probe, complete with a dedication message (in English only) on the container. Do not tell me that didn’t require some serious time and effort on their part, which could have also been applied to even a simple deliberate message as I just stated above.

    It should be a law that ALL deep space missions have an information package containing data on humanity and Earth and the Sol system, no exceptions. If we are going to keep sending vessels into the wider Milky Way galaxy that are not really intended with a particular interstellar target in mind, then the least we can do is equip them with information that will not only enlighten any recipients, but hopefully relieve them that the artifact in their possession is not somehow dangerous or otherwise a threat.

    There are also a collection of last booster stages heading off into the galaxy as well. They definitely have no METI on them. Would there be any residual fuels or other potentially dangerous components that could survive a long duration in space?

    Ironic how some of the human species can comprehend and build probes that traverse the Sol system and then escape into the stars, but then be so cavalier about throwing artifacts into the unknown without anything to identify their builders and origins with. Even if no ETI ever find them, our descendants might and I am sure they would be quite appreciative of having precious information from their ancestors.

    • Mark Zambelli September 15, 2017, 6:20

      I fully agree.
      (Do you have any info on just what booster stages are going to leave the solar system? because IIRC all booster stages should be in heliocentric orbits as they didn’t get the gravitational slingshots the 5 probes needed that allowed them to leave the solar system.)

      • ljk September 15, 2017, 11:35

        The info is buried somewhere in the CD blog at the moment, but if my memory serves all but one of the five deep space probes that have achieved Sol system escape velocity are being followed (but not on the same course, of course) by their final booster stages. I think the only one with a booster stage that remains in a wide heliocentric orbit is Pioneer 11.

        So we don’t just have five little probes being our first galactic ambassadors, we also have four bigger rocket stages drifting off into the void, with nothing to explain what they are or where they are from, or who built them. Yes, the recipients may be able to figure their general purpose, assuming they too once used primitive rockets to achieve space flight.

  • DJ Kaplan September 14, 2017, 15:12

    Meh. It’s more an act of navel-gazing imagination than an attempt to gather usable science. New Horizons is not aimed any place that is likely to have intelligent life, not any time soon – and we’re not even decided whether we want to announce ourselves to other space-farers. As this is not being installed on a system ready for launch (NH is already floating in the Great Black isn’t it?), even the PR that might be gathered will be minuscule.

    • ljk September 15, 2017, 9:52

      Once the probes are no longer functioning, what else can they do but serve as representatives of our species for others? Having information packages gives them a new purpose that will last indefinitely, rather than just being another hunk of inert metal drifting about. Archaeologists, human or otherwise, will certainly appreciate the data.

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