A NASA Pluto probe may end up with one final mission after its work exploring the outer solar system is done — carrying a message to advanced alien civilizations.
NASA is considering allowing a team of researchers, teachers, artists and engineers to upload an interstellar message to the agency's New Horizons spacecraft, which will perform the first-ever flyby of Pluto on July 14.
This project, known as the One Earth Message, is being led by Jon Lomberg, who was design director for the "golden records" that were placed aboard NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft before their 1977 launch to teach any aliens that might encounter the probes about humanity and its home planet. [5 Facts About NASA's Voyager Spacecraft]
The goals of the One Earth Message are similar, but the new project would be a more global and collaborative effort, asking people around the world to contribute images, sounds and ideas for this farflung "message in a bottle."
"This is really a chance to try to think about ourselves from the long perspective," Lomberg told Space.com. "We'll never know if this extraterrestrial audience that we're designing it for will receive it. But we do know that the people of Earth who participate, who play a role in it — it can literally change their lives."
A digital message
Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2012, and Voyager 2 will join its twin in this rarefied realm soon. The two probes' golden records are actual records — 12-inch-wide (30 centimeters) gold-plated copper disks that come with cartridges, needles and instructions about how to play them. The identical records contain 115 analog-encoded images, as well as audio of thunder and other natural sounds, music and spoken greetings in 55 different languages.
The One Earth Message, by contrast, would be digital. If NASA greenlights the project — the space agency has expressed enthusiasm but has yet to approve it officially, Lomberg said — the team will be allowed to beam 150 megabytes of data to New Horizons.
The One Earth Message would therefore hold about the same amount of information as Voyager's golden records — perhaps 100 images and about an hour of audio, Lomberg said. (Videos would take up too much memory.)
"We're writing a haiku, not a novel," he said.
The digital format would allow the One Earth Message to be more flexible, layered and integrated than was possible with the golden records, Lomberg added. For example, the message could be changed over time by beaming more files to New Horizons. It could also include a map of the world, and every picture and every sound could be tagged to the spot from which it came. [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Alien Life]
Crowdsourced content and funding
There's another key difference between the Voyager and New Horizons efforts: While the golden records carry information chosen by a small committee (which was chaired by famed astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan), the One Earth Message would be a crowdsourced affair, with contributions from people around the globe.
"It's not simply a photo contest," Lomberg said. "It's a process that's going to find out what people want to send."
Just as the One Earth Message's content would be crowdsourced, a chunk of its funding would be too. (The team is not asking NASA to pay for the project.) Lomberg and his colleagues hope to raise at least $500,000 from people around the world via a Fiat Physica campaign, to build and maintain a Web presence and to figure out the best way to program the message.
Additional money raised would be used for education and outreach, among other things.
"The total budget is a couple of million [dollars], to do everything we'd like to do," Lomberg said.
People would be able to contribute a certain number of photos for possible inclusion in the One Earth Message for free, he added. Anyone who wants to submit additional pictures would be able to do so, for a fee that would help cover the costs of the project's website.
The One Earth Message Fiat Physica campaign runs through July 15. As of yesterday evening (May 17), the crowdfunding effort had raised about $12,000 of its $500,000 target. You can learn more about the campaign here: http://www.fiatphysica.com/campaigns/oem/
The group is also looking for private support, Lomberg said.
Plenty of time
Drawing up a message designed to be understood by alien civilizationsis not a simple or straightforward task. For example, how would any hypothetical extraterrestrials that chance upon New Horizons even know that humanity is trying to say something to them?
"How can you send files so that aliens can figure them out? They're not going to know what a jpeg is," Lomberg said. "Our challenge is to find ways of coding the message so that it calls attention to itself as a message."
But there's plenty of time to work on such issues. The transmission to New Horizons would occur in July 2016 at the earliest, Lomberg said, and it could even be postponed until after the probe flies by a second faraway object in 2019 during a potential extended missionthat NASA is mulling.
While the One Earth Message is designed to be interpreted by aliens, it's a worthwhile exercise even if New Horizons zooms through space alone for all of its days, Lomberg said. The project, he stressed, has the potential to get people more excited about the New Horizons mission and space exploration in general — and possibly to bring people around the world together in a perspective-altering experience.
"For almost 40 years, I've seen how the Voyager record has inspired people," Lomberg said. "It seems like it's time for another generation to have that same type of inspiration."
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.