Introducing aliens to Earth

Campaigners are urging NASA to upload a crowdsourced message to its spacecraft as it prepares to leave the solar system. Kate Hennessy reports.

If you want to meet an alien, you really can’t afford to waste any opportunity. At least that’s what Jon Lomberg, an astronomical artist based in the US, believes.

The twin space probes Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in 1973 to explore Jupiter and Saturn carried gold-plated aluminium plaques showing nude figures of a human male and female as well as symbols that depict the location of Earth. The Voyager 1 and 2 twins, launched to explore the outer solar system in 1977, were also ready for a close encounter. Both were fitted out with a gold-plated 12-inch audio-visual disc depicting the sights and sounds of Earth. Last September, when Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to enter the space between the stars, it was ready to make new friends.

But when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006 to explore Pluto and its moons, it carried no message for ET.

Artist's impression of New Horizons spacecraft – Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

To rectify what he calls a “lost opportunity”, Lomberg last year founded the New Horizons Message Initiative to persuade NASA to upload a crowdsourced message from Earth to the spacecraft’s computer drive after it completes its Pluto mission in 2015 and heads out of the solar system. In late December, Lomberg met with senior NASA official Charles Bolden who said he supported the idea.

Lomberg is one of a select few people with experience in crafting messages to extra-terrestrials. Alongside Carl Sagan, he was part of the 1977 NASA team that created Voyager’s gold-plated records containing photographs, music and greetings.

But this time, Lomberg wants to do something different – he wants to crowdsource the contents of the message, by involving any interested Earthling and selecting the final materials through online voting.

“In a world filled with conflict and problems, the project’s global support encourages the hope we can act together as a united species facing a common galactic future,” Lomberg says.

Jon Lomberg, design director for the project to send a message to potential extra-terrestrials poses with the record placed on the Voyager spacecraft. – Galaxy Garden Enterprises LLC 2013

The campaign has more than 8,000 signatures from far-flung countries, and an international advisory board of around 60 scientists, engineers, journalists, artists and ordinary people. Members include SETI Institute co-founder Jill Tarter and Australian astrophysicist Bryan Gaensler.

Lomberg hopes to receive formal NASA approval for the project early this year. Then the real work begins: what to include in the 100 megabytes of data Lomberg estimates will be available. It is this process – reflecting on how to represent our planet to alien life forms – that is the project’s real appeal.

“This project captures the imagination, not because we hope aliens will give us a call but because we start to think about things like ‘would they admire us?’ or ‘would they be disappointed by us?’,” says Gaensler. “It forces us to evaluate all aspects of our lives and our society.

“All the good stuff like walking on the moon happened before I was born,” he adds. “This is my generation’s chance to take our message outwards too."

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