Project to blast gold-plated artifact disc into orbit

'The Last Pictures' disc, which could circle the Earth for billions of years, contains just 100 black and white photos

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An American Midwest dust storm (Source: Creative Time)

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."

MIT used a machine to etch the photos into the silicon using a bitmap format to create a binary image.

Once the images were etched, one question remained for everyone involved in the project. What impression might aliens get from the artifact?

"I think one part of me thinks it will mean nothing at all to them. That part of me understands the way we see images now is very culturally specific," Paglen said. "But I also worked with scientists at MIT and those guys thought these images would be found by robots, and those robots would understand what they meant."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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This story, "Project to blast gold-plated artifact disc into orbit" was originally published by Computerworld.

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