Last year, when Voyager I left our solar system for the lonely pastures of interstellar space, it carried a message for extraterrestrial life: A golden record containing images and words selected by Carl Sagan and others. But that was almost 40 years ago. Now, NASA is making a whole new message from the Earthlings of 2014. And it wants your messages.
Back in 2006, NASA launched a space probe called New Horizons. This little craft was designed to study Pluto and its moons — which it will reach sometime next summer. Right now, New Horizons is some 480 million kilometres away from Earth. But thanks to an idea from Jon Lomberg, who was involved in Carl Sagan's original golden record, this little probe will be undertaking a second mission when it finishes up its study of Pluto and its surrounds.
You see, Lomberg realised that when New Horizons finishes sending all its intel on Pluto back to Earth, its system will be left with a whole lot of extra memory. And since we can communicate with the probe — albeit over a lag of, right now, roughly four hours — there's no reason why we wouldn't be able to fill it up with new data. And since it will be careening further and further away from Earth, perhaps even into outer space, Lomberg suggests that we do something useful with it.
Last year, Lomberg launched a petition to push NASA to consider his plan, and started the New Horizons Message Initiative, an independent project to fund and collect a message for New Horizons to carry with it outside of the solar system.
But last month, they were successful. Space.com reports that NASA agreed to the idea, and the project is officially a go. Like Sagan's golden record, which Lomberg calls "a portrait of the Earth in 1977," this new message will be a portrait of Earth in 2014. And instead of letting a team at NASA decide what goes onto it, the group is soliciting content from anyone on Earth. Space explains:
People from around the world will be able to submit their images and vote on those that should be included in the final message. Lomberg and others will exercise editorial control to ensure that no inappropriate materials make the cut, and NASA will make the final call.
You'll be able to submit your message — be it an audio greeting, a Vine, or hopefully not a selfie — beginning next year.
It's a very cool project, and it's just another example of how citizen-scientists are coming together to participate in NASA missions, a bit like the group that successfully commandeered a long-lost NASA satellite last month.
But it also raises some interesting questions — like how the hell we expect aliens to be able to interpret any of these messages. In a way, these messages "for aliens" aren't really for extraterrestrials. They're for us humans. Just like time capsules, which are rarely useful to the humans who end up opening them, these space-bound messages are all about letting people of the present think about what's important to them about their world at present. Either way, it's a wonderful project. [Space]