Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
In September of 2006, even as astronomers were in the process of demoting Pluto to dwarf status, a half-ton robotic spacecraft was already enroute to a close encounter with the former planet. Engineered by the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University, NASA's New Horizons mission had been launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006, into an Earth and solar system escape trajectory. It would slingshot around Jupiter a year later, the giant planet's gravity accelerating it to become the fastest object ever launched by humans. After flying within 10,000 km of Pluto in 2015, it is expected that New Horizons will survey several Kuiper Belt objects, before exiting our solar system and drifting into interstellar space.
Seven years after launch, the spacecraft is already more than 26 Astronomical Units from Earth, and within less than 6 AU of its primary target. At that distance, radio commands from Earth take nearly four hours to reach its receivers. And now, with New Horizons far from our local neighborhood, my colleague Jon Lomberg has come up with an ambitious plan to turn the planetary probe into an interstellar ambassador.
Lomberg is no stranger to galactic greetings. In the 1970s, he was the Design Director of the famous Voyager Golden Records, later the subject of many a good science fiction film. So, it was no surprise that he proposed attaching a similar message from humanity to the rapidly receding spacecraft. But, how does one saddle a horse that has already long left the barn? Jon, a staunch SETI supporter, adopted a strategy quite familiar to those of us who spend our days searching for signals from the stars. He would employ photons, the fastest spaceships known to man.
The plan, after crafting a suitable Encyclopaedia Terrestria, is to beam it via microwave from NASA's Deep Space Communications Network, directly into New Horizon's onboard computer memory, from which extraterrestrial computer scientists may attempt, some eons hence, to extract it. All of which is highly speculative (but no more so than the SETI enterprise itself). A number of SETI League members (including myself) have joined a team to try to pull off this newest Hello from the Children of Planet Earth. There is now a website devoted to this endeavor, and a petition you can sign to support it. It remains to be seen whether, and how, we will address the many artistic, political, technical, economic, and social challenges we face. Stay tuned!
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this page last updated 5 October 2013
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