Posted April 17, 2015

Help send a message to the aliens

Would you like to have your message to the universe put on board a spacecraft that is already at the edge of the Solar System? At you can help make this possible.

This summer you can expect some pretty sensational astronomical pictures to go viral. Spaceprobe New Horizons will fly by Pluto, the distant dwarf planet, and will send back the very first close-up views of Pluto and its moons. All other known planets, up to Neptune, have been visited and photographed long ago by missions like Voyager 1 and 2 and Pioneer 1 and 2, launched in the seventies. Pluto is more or less the last frontier within the Solar System.

On December 6th New Horizons was awakened from hibernation. Things will get really interesting from May 5th, when New Horizons will start to make better pictures than the Hubble Space Telescope can make from low earth orbit. For comparison, this is a Hubble picture:

And this is a series made by New Horizons in July 2014:

This photo from New Horizons was released very recently.

According to NASA it is the first color image of Pluto.

That's the best we have, ever. Until now no two planets or moons have been alike, so we're almost certainly in for some surprises. On July 14th New Horizons will fly past Pluto and its biggest moon Charon. It will make as many snapshots as it can and then it will disappear into deep space.


So, how about your messages? Well, a guy named Jon Lomberg came up with the idea. He was involved with the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of music and other sounds from Earth on an analog record disc on board of both Voyager probes. When he decided New Horizons should also carry some such message, the craft was already halfway Pluto. Then the idea was born to upload a digital collection as soon as New Horizons mission was finished. When all of the pictures and other data have been downloaded to Earth, a lot of memory is freed up and can be filled with messages.

The New Horizons team has agreed to upload a message, but still it takes money to make this happen, says Lomberg to Join the Brightest Minds. 'The most expensive thing is hosting a website to crowdsource ideas for the message. Since we also want input from people living in desert,  mountain and arctic regions who may have no internet access, we need to go on expeditions to reach them. We'll also do public activities such as talks and workshops, for which we have to travel.'

New Horizons has 4 GB of memory and the team promised Lomberg at least 100 MB. 'I still hope for a bit more but we won't be able to put in too much video. Images will be an important component, possibly connected to a map of the world.' Lomberg envisions a website where people upload pictures they want to send up. These will enter some kind of selection process.

Lomberg is looking for two million in three years, and thinks one third to half of that is necessary for a 'bare bones' campaign. But for now his crowdsourcing page asks for a minimum of $ 500,000. Donors of at least $50 will have their names uploaded tot the spacecraft.

Will any aliens ever read your name? Lomberg: 'Chances are slim it will ever be found. If there's one fly in a stadium and you fire a gun at random, your chances of hitting the fly by accident are greater than for New Horizons to be found by some intelligence. But if they do find it and if they are motivated, I believe they will discover the digital data and decode it.'

But, says Lomberg, the process itself of assembling the message has the potential to bring people together and reflect on what it means to be part of a global community.

And for a person like you, even the idea that a message will be out there in space that you contributed to, will be totally worth it.

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.