"When humanity disappears, a ring of dead spacecraft will remain as evidence of our existence."
That comforting thought is how nonprofit arts group Creative Time introduces a project by multimedia artist Trevor Paglen to put a photo time capsule in space, where it will orbit our planet for thousands of years, perhaps long after we've blown each other up or otherwise expired.
The Last Pictures is a gold-plated archival disc that contains 100 photos micro-etched in silicon in bitmap format.
Designed by engineers at MIT and Carleton College, the disc has been installed on the EchoStar XVI satellite, which is slated to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the next few months.
It will join the hundreds of satellites in orbit, many of which are space junk. After 15 years of service, EchoStar XVI is expected to die and then continue to orbit indefinitely some 19,000 miles above our planet. If it's unbelievably lucky and lasts five billion years, the sun will consume it and the Earth when it enters its red giant phase.
"The project originates from the idea that the communications satellites in Earth's orbit will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created," Creative Time said in a release.
Aside from the fact that Paglen and his collaborators chose only 100 images, all in black and white, the selection of shots is surprising.
There are shots of many natural phenomena -- dust storms, typhoons, and melted glaciers -- and evidence of human artifice from cave paintings to rockets, HeLa cells used for research, and financial trading patterns.
People, however, seem scarce.
A column of migrants walking through desolate terrain is seen through the lens of a Predator drone.
Greek and Armenian orphan refugees smile shyly as they experience the seashore for the first time in their lives.
Production stills from science fiction films "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and "Warning from Space" provide a humorous, ironic angle to the collection. What would aliens of the distant future think?
One of the most striking images, however, is a NASA shot of the Earth, distant and lonely, rising over the moon's horizon. See a sample of the images in the gallery above.
Paglen apparently spent years choosing the photos in consultation with scientists, historians, philosophers, and artists. The relatively few humans in the archive seem to reflect the fact that our existence is but a blink in the lifetime of the universe.
"The Last Pictures imagines a future Earth where there is no evidence of human civilization beyond the derelict spacecraft we have left behind in our planet's orbit," Creative Time added gloomily.