NASA's New Horizons spacecraft could end up bearing a message for intelligent aliens, just as the agency's venerable Voyager probes are doing.
Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 famously carry copies of the "Golden Record," which are loaded with photos, music, sounds and other data designed to teach any extraterrestrials who might encounter the probes about humanity and its home planet.
Though such an alien encounter isn't likely, it is possible; Voyager 1 popped into interstellar space in August 2012, and its twin will probably do the same in the next few years, mission team members have said. [The Golden Record in Pictures: Voyager Probes' Message to Space Explained]
New Horizons' ultimate fate also lies beyond the solar system, "and it's leaving without a Golden Record, without a message," said Jon Lomberg, the design director for the Voyagers' Golden Record. (He worked closely with astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee that decided what information the record would contain.) "That seems like a missed opportunity," he said.
Lomberg wants to change things, by giving New Horizons a "Golden Record 2.0" — a new, crowdsourced digital version called the One Earth Message, which would be beamed out to the spacecraft in 2020.
On Aug. 20 — the 40th anniversary of Voyager 2's liftoff — he and his team launched a 40-day Kickstarter campaign, which seeks $72,000 to develop and maintain a website that will manage the photos and other material people submit for possible inclusion in the One Earth Message. If all goes according to plan, online voting will determine which content will ultimately make up the message.
The group is also seeking funding via other means. For example, Lomberg is auctioning off his collection of Voyager Golden-Record archival material, which includes (among other things) his original sketch for the cover diagram, numerous other drawings, and letters about the project from sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein and other notable people.
Heritage Auctions will manage the sale, which will take place Sept. 14. The collection is expected to fetch about $10,000, Heritage representatives told Space.com.
As such fundraising efforts suggest, NASA is not sponsoring or bankrolling the One Earth Message. However, agency officials and New Horizons team members have unofficially signaled support for the project, Lomberg said.
New Horizons, which flew past Pluto in July 2015, is now zooming toward a Jan. 1, 2019, rendezvous with a small object called 2014 MU69. It may take a year or so for the probe to beam all of its data from this second flyby home to Earth, Lomberg said; only then will New Horizons be able to spare the computer memory necessary to accommodate the One Earth Message.
"That gives us a good two years to first put the message together, which I estimate will take at least a year, and then another year to put it all together in software, test it and make sure it's suitable for upload," Lomberg said.
The upload to New Horizons would not happen without official NASA approval. This approval might be easier to obtain if the team approaches the agency with a finished product rather than a nebulous concept, Lomberg said.
"Forty years ago, when I worked with Carl on the Golden Record, he didn't go to NASA and try to get them to approve some vague idea of the message's music and sounds," Lomberg said. "He made it, and then he showed it to them and said what we did. They reacted to it. And if there was something they didn't like — and there was one picture they didn't like — they took it out."
Lomberg's vision for the One Earth Message doesn't end with New Horizons. Eventually, he would like every probe that leaves Earth to carry the message, or something like it.
"I think our spacecraft are our finest technical masterpieces," he said. "They're essentially works of art, and every work of art should be signed."
"Signing" probes in this fashion is worth the effort, even if they drift alone through space for eternity, Lomberg added.
"We will never know if there is an E.T. audience, but for the human audience that participates, it can be a profoundly moving experience to seriously contemplate communicating with the cosmos," he said in a statement.
You can learn more about the One Earth Message and its Kickstarter campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/31060842/one-earth-message-a-digital-voyager-golden-record/description