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What Should We Tell The Universe?

Pluto by David Seal
by Morris Jones
Pasadena - March 28, 2001
NASA's embattled mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt isn't on firm ground at the moment, but it's far from being totally dead. Even if the project is officially terminated in the short term, the possibility of resurrecting this mission in the future has not been eliminated.

Most details of this mission have yet to be determined, including the mission architecture and the design of the spacecraft itself. Options are being actively debated, yet one mission detail seems to have escaped widespread discussion.

The Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission will be only the fifth spacecraft sent beyond the solar system. Its four predecessors have all carried messages for extraterrestrial civilizations that may encounter the probes long after their missions have ended. Flight opportunities for this sort of activity are rare. We should not ignore this one.

Previous ventures in tacking messages to deep space missions have mostly been conducted as afterthoughts. Small but extremely dedicated teams working independently of the principal mission planners have carried them out.

With minimal resources and tight deadlines, it's amazing that these people managed to produce such well-planned payloads, such as the stylized plaques on Pioneers 10 and 11, and the more sophisticated multimedia recordings on Voyagers 1 and 2.

Our knowledge base of putative methods for communicating with extraterrestrials has expanded considerably in the meantime, and SETI projects have captured the attention of the general public. Technology for encoding and preserving messages has also improved. The Pluto/Kuiper mission could carry an enormous amount of information within a minimal package.

This matter should be addressed as soon as possible, in order to secure the place of a message payload on the spacecraft, and plan its contents.

Doing this would be easier than some would think. Linguists, psychologists and sociologists have given this topic much thought in recent years. NASA would find that well-informed plans for developing a message could simply be tapped on request.

A small, light, and robust storage medium could be selected from several alternatives. One option would be to etch a message on silicon or metal wafers using micro machining technology.

Instructions on how to read such a message would be no more difficult to communicate using pictograms than the instructions for playing the digital records carried by the Voyagers.

The message contents would certainly include the basics of our solar system and our species, elements common to all previous ones. But the storage limitations that led to such careful editing of previous payloads would not apply.

If NASA wished to increase the already strong public support base for its Pluto mission, it could again invite members of the public to submit signatures for inclusion in the message. This strategy has proven to be extremely popular and effective on previous missions.

An extraterrestrial civilization that finds the Pluto mission, or any of its outbound colleagues would certainly be amazed by the discovery. Attention would be paid to decoding and understanding the message payload, assuming that their psychology is reasonably similar to ours.

But the spacecraft itself is just as likely to be a source of information as the message it carries. Archaeologists investigating long-lost civilizations on Earth learn much by studying artifacts that were never intended for communications. A spacecraft would reveal details about the technology, economy and organizational culture of the civilization that built it.

A message payload would be easy to develop, and would not place any excessive burdens on the mission architecture. Ironically, it could prove to be one of the most popular items carried by this probe.

Morris Jones is a Sydney, Australia-based consultant and journalist. He can be contacted at Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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Bush Shakes Up Civil Space
by Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park - March 5, 2001
Without question, it has been an eventful week for NASA. With cuts across the board as ISS continues to run over budget, and the shuttle's replacement program gets dumped. But among the carnage there is renewed hope that Pluto Express might yet fly following intervention from the US Congress. In this extended report Bruce Moomaw provides SpaceDaily readers with a detailed roundup on what is happening at NASA's solar system exploration committee that was in session when news came of Pluto Express being axed again.
Will Funding Europa Bust The Bank
Cameron Park - March 7, 2001
The funding issue now facing a Pluto flyby is only one aspect of a bigger problem to which NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee devoted much time at its meeting last week. Michael Drake, the committee's chair, described the situation to SpaceDaily as a "Reality Check" -- adding that it's now quite clear that NASA simply has no way to fly most of the sophisticated Solar System missions it had planned over the next 15 years at the funding levels that it can now reasonably expect to be available.

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