To date, all four of the spacecraft NASA has blasted into the unknown depths of the outer Solar System have carried some kind of message from Earth to the stars. Pioneers 10 and 11, as well as Voyager 1 and 2, all carry an interstellar message from mankind, intended for any extraterrestrial traveler who may someday find them. However, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is currently three billion miles away from Earth en route to Pluto, does not, and a new campaign is underway to change that.
“Like the Voyager Record, this will be both a message from Earth and a message to Earth,” said Project Director for the New Horizons Message Initiative Jon Lomberg, who also served as the Design Director for NASA’s famous Voyager Golden Record. Lomberg is regarded as Earth’s most experienced creator of space message artifacts and was Carl Sagan’s most frequent artistic collaborator. “The very act of creating it will be a powerful reminder that we all share a common heritage and future on this ‘pale blue dot’ we call Earth.”
New Horizons, which launched atop an Atlas-V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 19, 2006, is currently cruising with incredible velocity through the outer Solar System. The spacecraft left Earth at the greatest-ever launch speed for a human-made object (36,373 mph) and will be the first spacecraft to ever visit Pluto and its moons when it arrives at the tiny world on July 14, 2015. The Pluto visit, however, will be brief—New Horizons is traveling so fast that it cannot slow down enough to stay, so it will continue on to explore other Kuiper Belt objects, and continue on, and on, and on, pushing steadily through interstellar space in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius and the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
The Pioneers launched with message plaques, and both Voyager spacecraft launched with Golden Records made to last billions of years. New Horizons was launched with no such message, but with today’s technology uploading a digital “human fingerprint” can be done, even across the vast void of space. Unlike the Pioneer plaques and Voyager Records, which were created by small, select teams, the New Horizons message, which will be roughly 100 megabytes in size, will be the product of a worldwide crowd-sourcing enterprise involving people from every walk of life and many different perspectives—a true message from humanity. The spacecraft’s computer, however, will not be able to hold the message until after it sends the science data from Pluto back to Earth, a process which could take up to a year after the Pluto encounter.
NASA has not approved sending a message to New Horizons yet, but the goal of the New Horizons Message Initiative (NHMI) is to persuade NASA to adopt the proposal. An online petition has been set up to gather thousands of signatures from around the world in support of Lomberg’s idea. The signatures will be submitted to NASA with a letter of endorsement signed by leaders in astronomy and other fields. Additionally, no funds are being requested from NASA to manage and design this complex project. Instead, the start-up money will come from individual donations made by signers of this petition, and, once NASA approves the plan, a major Kickstarter online fundraising campaign will attempt to raise the estimated $500,000 Lomberg believes the project will need over the next three years. So far, observatory directors, scientists from NASA missions such as Alan Stern (New Horizons Principal Investigator), leading astronomers, spacecraft engineers, teachers, science communicators, and artists like actor Levar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Reading Rainbow) are all in support of the idea.
“I am for it (the message),” said Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission. “I think it will inspire and engage people to think about SETi and New Horizons in new ways. The agency (NASA) hasn’t been approached to my knowledge yet, so it’s hard to say if NASA will carry out this campaign.”
“There is a lot of experimentation needed to develop the techniques of storing and sending the message. We need a travel budget for key meetings, but of course will use Skype and teleconferences as much as possible to plan and manage the submission process,” says Lomberg on the NHMI website. “We need to design and support an extensive online presence to spread word of a worldwide contest to select the message contents. Then we will need to receive, archive, judge, and assemble the submissions. We need to form educational outreach programs for schools to develop STEM-based opportunities that will inspire and motivate students.”
The names of the first 10,000 people to sign the petition will be uploaded with the message itself, which has yet to be composed. Based on the bandwidth and the computers on the spacecraft, Lomberg believes pictures and sounds from Earth can also be included, as well as new kinds of files such as software or games, 3D maps, and globes. A worldwide search for the specific pictures and other materials to send will be held, and the finalists will be selected by online voting in various categories of content.
“Our technical team will research the many issues involved and determine the possible form and contents,” adds Lomberg on the NHMI website. ” The challenge will be to create the richest and most durable message possible that is also as easy as possible for hypothetical ETs to decode. Our aim is to begin the contest exactly one year before New Horizons flies by Pluto on July 14, 2015. Between now and then we will have answered all the technical questions and know what kind of, and how much, content we can send.”
The messages on the plaques and golden records carried by the Pioneer and Voyager probes were built to last eons, but the computers on New Horizons cannot compete in longevity—the spacecraft’s memory is similar to a flash drive storage device. However, the message, being that it is digital, can be changed as long as New Horizons is in communication with Earth, which could be for several decades (Voyagers 1 and 2 are both still in contact with Earth more than 30 years after they launched). The message could be improved and updated to reflect events on Earth after New Horizons leaves Pluto, a luxury the Pioneer and Voyager probes do not have.
“The extreme cold might lengthen the time it takes the message to degrade, or the radiation environment might shorten it. The most conservative estimates are a lifetime of a few decades,” adds Lomberg on the NHMI website. “Other physicists and engineers believe the message might remain for centuries or even millennia. Another unknown is the advanced technology possessed by any ETs who find the spacecraft. They might have ways of reading the faded memory we cannot yet imagine.”
NEXT STOP PLUTO
New Horizons has already passed Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus on its voyage, and it still has two years of travel time before its historic visit with Pluto in the summer of 2015. The spacecraft itself is currently in hibernation mode, sleeping as it pushes toward Pluto at 34,000 mph, covering nearly a million miles per day. In April 2012, operators at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland awoke the spacecraft to perform a series of systems and instrument tests to ensure it is healthy and fully operational as it pushes for a final approach with Pluto.
The next big milestone comes in late summer 2014, when New Horizons passes the orbit of Neptune 11 months prior to its encounter with Pluto. The main science mission begins in February 2015, as the spacecraft will be close enough to Pluto to begin real scientific observations as it comes ever closer to its fly by in July 2015. The spacecraft is traveling so fast that it won’t be able to slow down enough to put itself into an orbit around Pluto, but instead will fly by the dwarf planet at 30,000 mph, giving scientists back on Earth one shot at exploring the mysterious heavenly body as the spacecraft comes within 6,000 miles of Pluto’s surface.
In the 24 hours during New Horizons’ pass of Pluto, a plethora of data and imagery will be pouring in from the spacecraft as it explores Pluto and its moon Charon. If there are other moons orbiting Pluto, or if rings are present, New Horizons will see them. Periodic mapping of their surfaces will tell scientists what Pluto and Charon are made of, what the surface temperatures are, what changes are regularly occurring in the atmosphere, and what the atmosphere is made of, and hi-res images of up to 50 megapixels will show us Pluto in a way researchers have only been able to imagine. It is also expected that Pluto’s true diameter will be answered, among a multitude of other scientific objectives that mission operators have set out to accomplish.
“This is a message to Earth as well as a message to ETs,” adds Lomberg. “For 40 years people have been inspired by the symbolism of making the Voyager Record, of describing ourselves to a hypothetical cosmic audience. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake brilliantly led a small team to make that message. Now, thanks to the world wide web, we can invite millions of Earthlings to join together to speak for Earth! The act of creating the message has great educational, cultural and even spiritual value, whether the message is ever found by other beings or not. We think this idea will be immensely popular with people within the USA and elsewhere and we hope the outpouring of public support for our petition will persuade NASA to implement our plan.”
For more information on the New Horizons Message Initiative and to sign the petition supporting Lomberg’s idea, click HERE!
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