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A Golden Record for the Next Generation

Nancy Atkinson
Kayla Donlin
December 19, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

What message would you send to an alien civilization?

The desire to communicate with other life that might exist elsewhere in the universe seems to be part of the human psyche. This desire — driven by a yearning to know if humanity is alone in the cosmos — has prompted us to send radio signals deep into space and listen for any that other civilizations might be sending our way. 

We’ve also sent artifacts into space. Our most ambitious (and notorious) effort was the Voyager Golden Records, two identical gold-plated phonograph records launched in 1977 along with both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, as time capsules that could communicate the story of our world to space-faring extraterrestrials. The records included information about our civilization — from music to personal greetings, to encoded images of our world and ourselves. Both Voyager spacecraft have now left our solar system and are traveling through interstellar space, our first emissaries out into the galaxy.

Scientists estimate the Voyager records could endure traveling through space for as long as five billion years. 

“The Voyager record is a symbol of our shared human heritage and curiosity about the cosmos,” said Jonathan Jiang, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It reflects the universal human desire to leave a mark and communicate with others, even across the vastness of space and time.”

The Voyager Golden Record project is now approaching its 50th anniversary. Jiang and several colleagues think it is time to compile and send out a new and improved version, an interstellar messaging effort called Message In A Bottle (MIAB). 

The New MIAB

The MIAB concept was originally proposed in 2021, and Jiang’s team — which includes members from JPL, SETI Institute, Blue Marble Institute, Interstellar Foundation, and several other organizations and universities — have been refining their ideas. They have now published a new version of their paper, which includes new philosophies and enhanced goals. 

“The new MIAB has two main purposes: to propose a message for extraterrestrial or future Earth beings, and to unite humanity under a common goal,” Jiang told Supercluster. “It now emphasizes involving people globally to contribute diverse perspectives on human civilization.”

Original Voyager Golden Record imagery copyright Jon Lomberg

In their new paper, the team writes that their project strives to “inspire and unify current and future generations to celebrate and safeguard our shared human experience.” They also have the goal of sharing “our collective knowledge, emotions, innovations, and aspirations in a way that provides a universal, yet contextually relevant understanding of human society, the evolution of life on Earth, and our hopes and concerns for the future.”

Jiang explained that this new MIAB will also put greater emphasis on promoting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education while attempting to communicate with an extraterrestrial intelligence and fostering common understanding among humans. 

“Furthermore, MIAB introduces the idea of creating and preserving a comprehensive record about humanity and Earth, including videos, images, and sounds,” Jiang said. “This record would serve as a historical relic for the future.”

“Even in the event of Earth's destruction.”

The original Voyager record was conceived and designed in the 1970s; therefore, the ‘playback’ technology of the day was used. Cartridges with needles to play phonograph records were included, with instructions for their use inscribed on the records’ covers. But technology has changed dramatically since the Voyager record was sent — and will likely change and advance just as much in the future. Therefore, the MIAB team has been considering the challenges in making MIAB accessible to an alien civilization and future generations of Earthlings. 

“One significant challenge is ensuring the longevity of the message format,” Jiang said. “Technological formats evolve rapidly, and the MIAB message must be stored in a way that remains readable and interpretable for potentially thousands of years. Also, as technology advances, ensuring that the message remains relevant becomes crucial. Information can become outdated quickly, and the MIAB initiative must find a way to update or adapt the message over time to reflect the ever-changing nature of human society and knowledge.”

Another challenge is in establishing a mutual understanding and trying to encompass all the unknowns of both space and time. 

“MIAB must convey information using symbols and conventions that both future generations of humans and potential extraterrestrial recipients can comprehend,” Jiang said. “We cannot predict with certainty the cognitive abilities or modes of perception of potential extraterrestrial recipients. MIAB must strike a balance between providing comprehensive information and leaving room for interpretation, as we cannot anticipate the exact nature of the beings who might one day receive it.”

Hello Universe

Voyager wasn’t the first effort at intentionally sending a message into the cosmos. Pioneers 10 and 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 and were the first spacecraft set on trajectories that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. They both carried small metal plaques with inscribed pictures identifying the spacecrafts’ place of origin (our solar system and Earth) along with a friendly-looking man and woman, all for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future. 

Original Voyager Golden Record imagery copyright Jon Lomberg

Just a year later in 1974, astronomer Frank Drake headed up the Arecibo Message, a radio transmission sent towards the direction of the globular cluster M13. The transmission used binary arithmetic to depict human DNA, our solar system, and human figures. The message will take at least 25,000 years to arrive at its intended destination, but the message is considered a pivotal event in the pursuit of interstellar communication.

Similar efforts followed, with radio signals intentionally sent out to — hopefully — reach intelligent extraterrestrial life in both nearby and distant star systems as part of Active SETI (Active Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). While some question the idea of purposefully letting aliens know we are here, there is an endearing nature to wanting to initiate contact — the first gesture of friendship, as it were. 

Additionally, there have been attempts over the years to duplicate the Voyager record’s noble goals. From 1988-1992, I worked with a small group of people from the Minneapolis, MN area on a project called the World Time Capsule. As a mainly educational project, it prompted students to think about what they would convey to a distant civilization about humanity — the good, the bad, the wondrous, the beautiful and not-so-beautiful things about our world, our lives, and our history — all in correlation to the subjects they were studying in school. The ultimate goal of the World Time Capsule was to not only send a spacecraft with messages out into the cosmos but to have a database on Earth accessible to anyone to read the student’s hopes and dreams for the future. The World Time Capsule gathered submissions from over 5,000 students in five states, but the technology challenges of the time were huge. It is almost hard to imagine now, but in the early 1990s, the ability to scan and digitize content was in its infancy and incredibly expensive. Our team often concluded we were slightly ahead of our time.

The World Time Capsule eventually merged with another similar educational program called SpaceArc, which originated at the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, N.Y. SpaceArc ultimately launched student and public submissions on board a geosynchronous satellite in 1994. SpaceArc should orbit our planet for generations, where a passing alien ship might find it, or perhaps Earthlings could retrieve the satellite sometime in the future if we ever need to remember who we were back in the 1990s.

Moving Forward with MIAB

But yet, ever since the Voyager Golden Records were launched, no other extraterrestrial messages quite like them have been sent into space. 

Original Voyager Golden Record imagery copyright Jon Lomberg

At an event at Caltech in August 2023, Jiang discussed MIAB’s goals on a panel that included Ann Druyan, who was the Creative Director and collaborator with scientist Carl Sagan on the original Golden Record. The event was in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and featured the worldwide premiere of Techne and a panel discussion that constituted the first announcement and public launch of MIAB. The panel was moderated by author and Supercluster contributor Daniel Oberhaus.

Druyan fully supports the MIAB idea of celebrating and safeguarding the human experience. She said that even though she felt they gave their all in compiling the data used for the Voyager record project back in 1977, the next generation should now create new messages. 

The panel discussion also included Daniel R. Small, an artist, author, and filmmaker. Small recently produced a documentary film series called “Techne: Evidence in the Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene refers to an unofficial unit of geologic time used to describe the most recent period in Earth's history when human activity has begun to have a significant impact on the planet's climate and ecosystems. Small will be following MIAB's effort while Directing and Producing an upcoming film about the internal committee and the various challenges they face.

The film includes scientists and artist-investigators who contemplate both deep time and the fate of the human species. It looks at the dual nature of technology, exploring humanity’s technical achievements while cautioning against potential pitfalls. 

For example, in the film, Jiang and other scientists talk about research that suggests there is a very high likelihood that intelligent extraterrestrial life is short-lived and prone to self-annihilation. This idea, in many ways, adds a palpable sense of urgency to any interstellar messaging efforts because our transmission window and perhaps the window for extraterrestrial civilizations who might receive these messages might be quite small.

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“Are we plagued by our paleolithic brains, to the extent that we are simply not evolved enough to solve issues related to the Anthropocene? And the hyper-contemporary technological apparatuses that seem to be outpacing our ability to understand them?” Small contemplated during an interview with Supercluster.

“The new interstellar messaging effort is attempting to reckon with some of these same issues, only in a much broader context, and to outline and better come to terms with our planetary conditions. So, in that way, Jonathan and his team are already embracing what I would consider to be a form of Techne, in how they are approaching MIAB.”

Techne, Small explained, was a term used by the ancient Greeks that denoted a form of producing knowledge through making and doing, i.e., practical knowledge. 

“The main driver of Techne was an epistemological model for putting scientists and experts from a diverse array of different fields into conversation with artists and their varied fieldwork, methodologies, and framing of similar issues,” Small said. “The goal was to try and find the connective tissue, but to also highlight how the work of an artist intersects in so many ways with the work of scientists, philosophers, and technologists.” 

While the film series is not public yet, it will be on tour next spring, starting with a stop at MIT in Boston. View the trailer for Techne here.

“Techne is a model for generating knowledge that moves across many disciplines and fields that opens up discussions between science, technology, economics, and history,” Small said. “The more open-ended projects like interstellar messaging efforts become, the more intriguing they are in that they acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and attempt to return to a primordial soup of how communication might occur under vastly different conditions.”

Original Voyager Golden Record imagery copyright Jon Lomberg

Jiang said the MIAB project will be used as an educational tool, but also to be a beacon of hope in the cosmos. 

“We want human civilization to survive, and so we want to use this activity as sort of tool to wake people up to think about humanity’s future,” Jiang said during the panel session. 

Jiang said there are no solid timelines yet for the project, but he and his team are going to take diverse input from people from all over the world for the project. They also hope to convince NASA to support this next-generation “time and space-traveling capsule.”

Nancy Atkinson
Kayla Donlin
December 19, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)