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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.

Paglen also performed extensive interviews with other artists, philosophers, and scientists, who included biologists, physicists, and astronomers. To each, he posed a single question: What photos would you choose to send into outer space?

The scientists from MIT also offered the artist a fresh philosophical perspective with regard to understanding what the images may mean to aliens a billion years from now.

"Cave paintings became the obvious reference," Paglen said. "They tell us about the prehistoric environments of the ecology and perhaps even of the lifestyles of long ago that we know very little about."

19,000 miles above Earth

Once launched, EchoStar XVI will function for about 15 years and then go dead, orbiting 19,000 miles above Earth for five billion years. Why five billion? That's when scientists estimate the Sun will run out of hydrogen, become a red giant and expand, consuming the planets around it.

Until then, if humans do follow the dinosaurs and become extinct, there will be plenty of evidence of our existence left behind. Over the past 50 years, more than 800 spacecraft have been launched into geosynchronous orbit.

After a relatively short life, hundreds have become nothing more than floating junk. The debris have formed a ring of technology -- artifacts in their own right -- around Earth.

"These satellites are destined to become one of the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet," Creative Time states in its online introduction to the project.

It's not the first time that artifacts have been launched into the heavens in the hope that they will someday be discovered by alien civilizations.

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft with a gold-plated photographic-style record on board. The record contained both sounds and etched images that portrayed the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

Voyager was sent past several planets, including Pluto in 1990 and left our solar system in November 2004. The spacecraft wasn't pointed at any particular star, but the golden platter was placed onboard with the hope that distant civilization might stumble upon it.

Voyager and its golden record has since become the thing of movie legend, having appeared in both Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 and Starman in 1984.

But the Voyager's record, made of copper, will deteriorate relatively quickly, as the atoms in metal tend to clump together over time and liquefy. So, creating a modern an artifact that would last billions of years posed a theoretical problem for scientists.

"The scientists at MIT felt we needed something that had a crystalline structure rather than atomic," Paglen said. "So they chose silicon."


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