NASA's Pluto probe could carry your photo to aliens

The man responsible for Voyager's "golden record" wants to beam crowdsourced data to the New Horizons spacecraft and take it beyond our solar system.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

An artist's impression of New Horizons, the spacecraft that might carry the One Earth Message beyond our solar system. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

At this moment, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is speeding toward Pluto. After it makes its closest approach, on July 14, it will head out beyond the farthest reaches of our solar system into interstellar space. If a project known as One Earth Message gets off the ground, the probe may get an upload of crowdsourced data from Earth to carry with it, with the hope that the message is someday found by alien life.

The project is being spearheaded by Jon Lomberg, who served as Carl Sagan's chief artist on the original "Cosmos" TV series. More appropriately to this mission, he was also design director for the Voyager Record project, designing a series of photos and diagrams that profiled Earth -- for those in the galaxy who might not be familiar with our humble planet.

For that project, two "golden records" were made and one was placed aboard each of the two Voyager spacecraft. The identical records contained natural sounds like wind and whale calls, music from various cultures and greetings in 55 languages -- including Akkadian, a Sumerian language spoken about 6,000 years ago. Voyager I and II were launched in 1977, with Voyager I crossing into interstellar space in 2012.

The One Earth Message project has a similar idea, but this time, instead of making analog gold-plated copper disks, the information would be digital and beamed through space to the computer aboard New Horizons. And this time, instead of being chosen by a small committee such as the one that decided what got put on the golden records, the information beamed to New Horizons would be crowdsourced via a website.

"It's not simply a photo contest," Lomberg told Space.com. "It's a process that's going to find out what people want to send." He also mentioned that the group would be able to send about 150MB of data -- which is actually about the same that's on each golden record. That amounts to about 100 photos and an hour of audio, Lomberg said.

To make this all happen, the One Earth Message project is running a fund-raising campaign on the platform known as Fiat Physica, which, yes, helps raise cash for physics projects.

They're seeking to raise $500,000 to build the crowdsourcing site and "develop new techniques to program a message designed to be recognized, decoded and understood by beings in the far future," according to the campaign page.

Lomberg told Space.com that NASA hasn't given official approval for the project. But the campaign page does say that the space agency responded enthusiastically to a petition for One Earth Message containing over 10,000 signatures, encouraging Lomberg to continue with the project.

Because the project is designated as flexible funding, all pledges will contribute to the group's work, even if the funding goal isn't met. Pledges range from $5 on up and include a wide range of perks, including the chance to have your name uploaded to New Horizons. The campaign runs for just about two more months and has raised over $13,000 since it started.