Article published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 17 Oct 2013:
Send Your Name to the Stars!
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Would you like to send your name to the stars – as part of a message from humanity to alien beings out there?
It could be as easy as signing an online petition, addressed to the US space agency NASA.
A worldwide group of starry-eyed people – drawn from all walks of life, all sharing an interest in space exploration — are hoping to persuade NASA to include a message to the stars aboard its New Horizons spacecraft, now on its way to Pluto.
The New Horizons Message Initiative (NHMI), a private organization, started collecting online signatures in mid September. Within three weeks, more than a thousand people from 70 different nations had joined. www.newhorizonsmessage.com
If the petition succeeds, and NASA agrees, the names of the first 10,000 people signatories will be added to a message intended for extra-terrestrials, or ETs.
New Horizons, launched in January 2006, is currently about 5 billion (3 billion miles) kilometres away from Earth, en route to a historic encounter with Pluto and its moons. If all goes to plan, the robotic spacecraft would flyby Pluto in July 2015.
Afterwards, the compact car sized probe will head out into deep space, becoming the fifth human-made spacecraft to leave the solar system. It follows four earlier, US-made spacecraft — Pioneers 10 and 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2. All launched during the 1970s, they have completed their various planetary flybys and are now travelling onward in interstellar space.
Each of those probes carried a message from Earth to any ETs who might someday encounter them: a gold-plated visual plaque on the Pioneers, and a phonograph record on the Voyagers.
There is no such message as yet on New Horizons, which is what NHMI wants to introduce, albeit belatedly.
It’s not too late, NHMI’s backers believe, to persuade NASA to beam and upload a message to the spacecraft’s memory, after it completes the Pluto encounters.
The proposal for a new interstellar message came from artist Jon Lomberg, possibly the world’s most experienced creator of space message artefacts. As (astronomer and space populariser) Carl Sagan’s frequent artistic collaborator, Lomberg served as Design Director for the Voyager Golden Records, which contain a stunning array of sights and sounds of Earth.
Unlike the Pioneer and Voyager messages, which were created by small, select teams working with Sagan, the NHMI wants to involve interested persons anywhere in the world. The global Internet – which wasn’t available when the earlier messages were assembled – enables such wide participation.
Using techniques of web-based crowd-sourcing, the content of the message is to be shaped jointly by scientists, artists, writers and ordinary people who share an interest in this important enterprise.
Lomberg has assembled an international team of advisors to oversee the creation of a worldwide, crowd-sourced self-portrait of Earth, consisting of pictures, sounds and even software from our planet.
“As scientists, academics and interested parties working in other fields, we believe that this message is an inspiring idea that offers opportunities for public engagement and the stimulation of interest in science, engineering and exploration by a new generation,” says a statement from the NHMI founders and advisors.
But first, the citizen initiative must secure acceptance from NASA that owns and operates the spacecraft. NHMI Project Director Lomberg hopes that thousands of signatures — coming from far corners of the planet — would make their case more compelling.
In recognition of early support, the first ten thousand to sign will have their names added to the as-yet-uncreated message.
“It will be a nice slice of immortality for early supporters of the initiative,” says Lomberg. “The spacecraft will sail forever around the galaxy, and your name can go with it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The message, prepared with creative and technical inputs from many, could be beamed on to the spacecraft’s computer as a radio transmission across the solar system.
To sign the petition and for more information about the project, visit:
[Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a member of the International Advisory Board for the New Horizons Message Initiative.]