When the EchoStar XVI television satellite lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome later this year, it will be carrying a message to the future designed to last billions of years. As it swings in geosynchronous orbit 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi) above our planet, it will have a gold-plated silicon disc bolted to it, nano-etched with 100 black-and-white images depicting life on Earth.
The disc is the culmination of the Last Pictures project by Trevor Paglen, artist in residence at MIT, and is funded by the non-profit Creative Time organization. The disc is the work of researchers at MIT and Carleton College, and is designed to last indefinitely in outer space without breaking down. By placing it in on a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, the disc might, barring intervention, remain in orbit until the earth is destroyed.
The American National Exhibition at the Moscow World's Fair, one of the images in the Last Pictures time capsule
Etched on the disc's protective cover is a map of the world showing the current positions of the continents, along with geometric formulas and data meant to aid the finder in dating the artifact. If this sounds a bit like the famous gold-plated phonograph record designed by Carl Sagan for the Voyager missions, that’s more than a coincidence. The Last Pictures disc is essentially an updating of the records now heading for interstellar space, and a technical improvement in that the latest disc is much less volatile than those on the Voyager spacecraft.
Ironically, the problem with the Last Pictures project is the pictures. Sagan’s collections of pictures and music were already pretty hard to figure out compared to (for example) the Westinghouse time capsule buried during the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where the designers went to great pains to make the contents understandable to the finders thousands of years into the future. Paglen’s make it hard for even contemporary viewers to sort out what the message is supposed to be.
The 100 images are an eclectic collection. There are images of cherry blossoms, prehistoric cave paintings, an atomic bomb, the SAC headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain under construction, children in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, and the French murderess Yvonne Chevallier on trial for killing her husband in 1951. None of these relate to the other and none are captioned.
This obscurity isn't surprising, because this is not a serious attempt at communication. Paglen himself doesn't think the disc will ever be found, nor does he think that anyone finding it will understand a thing in the images. He believes that communication is impossible. In interviews, he calls his own project “absurd” and “nonsense” and a “meta-gesture,” yet that didn't stop him from spending five years talking to scientists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians and geologists. He also formed an “in-depth research team that explored the implications of the project along numerous philosophical lines of inquiry," and got MIT and Carleton College to come up with the disc.
Potentially, the disc could last for billions of years – or until a comprehensive cleanup of space junk is carried out. Unfortunately, for all its pretensions and space technology, it’s just a piece of conceptual art. While MIT may have done a good job of developing the time capsule, the images selected by Paglen are useless unless you’re tuned in to his particular theories. In other words, like most modern art, you have to be part of the “in” crowd to get the joke. Unfortunately, a billion years from now there won’t be an “in” crowd.