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Project to blast gold-plated artifact disc into orbit

Lucas Mearian | Oct. 4, 2012
The Last Pictures project is scheduled to blast off this fall, sending a communications satellite into space with a gold-plated, photo-filled disc attached to it that is meant to be a cultural artifact for aliens to find.

The problem: You want to send images into space and you want them to last 5 billion years. The solution: A gold-plated disc.

That's the idea behind The Last Pictures project, which is scheduled to blast off in the next few months.

The project involves attaching a silicon disc encased in gold to the outside of a communications satellite. The disc will include just 100 etched photos, which are meant to be a cultural artifact for aliens to find if mankind is no longer here when they come knocking.

The disc, designed by researchers at MIT and Carleton College, is filled with images chosen by artist Trevor Paglen and a team he put together, who are working with the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time and the media and satellite company EchoStar.

The golden artifact is hitching a ride on the EchoStar XVI satellite, which once in orbit will be fully leased to DISH Direct-to-Home services in the United States. After several technical problems, the satellite is now scheduled to blast off in the November-December timeframe from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's first and largest space launch facility located in Kazakhstan.

Since the conclusion of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, Baikonur has become the sole launch facility for manned missions to the International Space Station.

The black and white pictures that Paglen chose were also recently published in a book. They include photos of a meteorite, a dust storm hitting an American Midwest neighborhood, a ship traversing a canal and cherry blossoms.

Looking at the photographs, a theme is somewhat inscrutable -- an observation that Paglen himself admits. For example, a photo of a group of people taken by a predator drone joins several photos of 17,000-year-old cave paintings.

One of the more impalpable photos is of "financial crop circles," or trading activity patterns created by automated high-speed computer algorithms. One photo shows Native American petroglyphs from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

"What it depicts is Spanish raiders arriving in the Navajo territory. So really, it's an image of an alien invasion," he said. "So that was a powerful image for us in thinking about the history of empire and war and how the West and in fact much of the world [and civilization was developed]."

While at first blush the photos can seem to have been chosen at random, Paglen carefully picked the zeitgeist over a period of five years. The process included a group of artists from Creative Times, which commissioned the project.

The six artists spent eight months collecting images, everything from medieval alchemical texts to the history of cameras and messages in bottles to cybernetics (the study of mechanical, physical, biological, and cognitive systems).


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