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Send your name to the stars with New Horizons

Posted: 14 October 2013

When the two Voyager spacecraft launched to the outer planets in 1977 they carried with them two gold plated records attached to their hulls. The records were humanity's way of making a statement to the cosmos, containing sounds of nature, samples of music, images of Earth and greetings in 56 languages. Now a new initiative has been launched, spearheaded by space artist Jon Lomberg, to convince NASA to allow the New Horizons probe to carry a similar message to the stars, as well as the names of 10,000 people.

An artist's impression of New Horizons at Pluto. Image: JHUAPL/SwRI.
Lomberg was part of Carl Sagan's team that developed the Voyager records. Sagan himself had previously developed the Pioneer plaques, which were based on an original idea by Eric Burgess of the British Interplanetary Society and contained information on the location of Earth and human beings. So there is plenty of precedence for spacecraft that are destined to enter interstellar space to carry messages with them. Yet New Horizons, which is on its way to Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and eventually interstellar space, blasted off in 2006 with no message onboard, So hasn’t that ship quite literally sailed?

Changing technology has come to the rescue. Back in 1977 we used phonographic records. Twenty years ago we would have used a compact disc. Today information is routinely stored digitally. Lomberg's plan is to upload the message - 100Mb in total - to the spacecraft about a year after its encounter with Pluto in 2015, once all the data has been downloaded from the probe. The content of the message has yet to be decided and will involve the public, with large components of the message being crowd-sourced from social networks to garner a range of ideas. Crowd-sourcing has previously been used before in this capacity, when Russian radio astronomer Alexander Zaitsev used the social network site Bebo to colelct messages from the public that were ultimately included in a radio transmission beamed into space. To try and ensure serious

Lomberg says, however, that he will set the bar high for what will be included. Before that can happen, however, the project has to gain enough support to convince NASA to allow it to happen. You can sign up to support the New Horizons Message initiative. The first 10,000 people to sign up to lend their support will have their names included with any message. Notable supporters include astrobiologist David Grinspoon, the SETI Institute's Jill Tarter, astrophotographer David Malin and Star Trek: The Next Generation's LeVar Burton. New Horizon's Principal Investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, has also given his blessing to the project.

The cover to the Voyager records. The markings indicate how to play the record (top left), how to interpret the signal from the record to generate the pictures (top right) and the Sun's position in the galaxy relative to nearby pulsars (bottom). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
The records on the Voyager craft and indeed the plaques that their pre-cursors Pioneer 10 and 11 carry, were funded by NASA. (However, Timothy Ferris, who has part of the Voyager records team, says that NASA were initially concerned about public reaction to the records during the time of Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards, so NASA always photographed the Voyager craft when they were still on Earth from the side opposite to where the records were attached.) Today, as part of austerity measures, the US Congress has cancelled all public outreach funding for NASA. Therefore, even though NASA can authorise the project, they cannot provide any money for it. Instead, Lomberg's team will have to raise funding via Kickstarter and other sponsorships and donations.

In September it was announced that Voyager 1 had reached interstellar space. Voyager 2 will follow it in a few years' time. Pioneer 10 and 11 will also reach interstellar space, but have already shut down. New Horizons is also destined to run out of power before it too enters interstellar space in a few decades time, warns Alan Stern. Nevertheless, the message will be safely stored on its hard drive and should anybody find and reboot the probe - be it human beings in the future, or the much smaller likelihood of intelligent extraterrestrial life, they may be able to salvage the message. The Voyager records are designed to survive for a billion years; the longevity of the New Horizons message on the craft's hard drive is more uncertain. Regardless, the probe will be a long-lasting monument to early twenty-first century humankind that will go out into the Galaxy at large.