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Space ‘time capsule’ could send a message to the future

Nature volume 391, page 112 (08 January 1998) | Download Citation



Round trip: Kéo, described as an ‘archaeological bird’, would return to Earth in 50,000 years time. Image: INFOGRAPHISTE: RENE LOCICERO

A French artist is hoping to launch a satellite into orbit early next century that would return to Earth in 50,000 years, delivering a cargo of works of art and compact discs containing a contemporary ‘library of Alexandria’, as well as millions of messages from today's inhabitants of Earth. Its heat shield would create an artificial aurora borealis on re-entry, to alert the then inhabitants of the Earth to its arrival.

The craft, to be called Kéo as it comprises the only three sounds common to all languages, is the brainchild of the Paris-based artist Jean-Marc Philippe. Kéo, the ‘archaeological bird’, has been developed in collaboration with research and space organizations including the French Atomic Energy Commission, the Aerospatiale company, and Sup'Aero, the Toulouse-based grande école for aeronautics and space.

The same organizations, as well as the European Space Agency, are also backing another project of his to send the first sculpture to another planet, Mars. Both collaborations involve no direct funding, being developed through ‘in kind’ contributions of materials and time.

The French space agency CNES is seeking to arrange a free launch of Kéo on Ariane-5, according to Josette Runavot, deputy head of the agency's planetary exploration department, who points out that Ariane-5 is able to offer ‘piggy-back’ flights for small satellites alongside commercial payloads. The project is "marvellous", she says.

After establishing himself as a painter in the 1970s, Philippe — who has a PhD in astrophysics —turned to developing new technologies to artistic ends. Through joint ventures with the US company Raychem and French research agencies, he has pioneered the development of ‘shape memory alloys’, compounds invented for use in US fighter aircraft that are able to ‘memorize’ precise shapes at various temperatures.

By adapting new technologies, artists can broaden creative possibilities, says Philippe. His work with alloys has yielded a copper-zinc-aluminium sculpture, ‘Hermaphrodite’, a bust of a male Greek torso at 20 °C that changes to a woman's torso at 55 °C.

Kéo will have such sensitive alloys in its solar panels so they move up when the craft is in sunlight and down when it is in Earth's shadow, to give the appearance of a large gliding migratory bird. Inside the satellite samples of sea water, soil, air and a drop of human blood are held in a diamond, the surface of which is engraved with a highly conserved region of human DNA.

The capacity of the craft's titanium nitrate-plated glass discs is sufficient to store four pages of "uncensored" text from every inhabitant of Earth, says Philippe, who says the main aim of the project is to invite as much of humanity as possible to reflect on its history and destiny. He is preparing an international effort to collect text, and is in discussions with sociologists as to how the compilation could be exploited for research purposes.

For the second project, European space scientists have offered to trim the size of their instruments to make room for a threadlike sphere 10 cm in diameter containing a torus of shape-memory alloys that cause the sculpture to close during the cold martian night and open during the day to reveal a pyramidal diamond at its core, engraved with the DNA double helix. Philippe has submitted the sculpture to NASA's call for proposals for its Mars flights. But Marcello Coradini, coordinator of Solar System missions at the European Space Agency, says that if the bid is unsuccessful, his agency "will do its utmost" to fly the sculpture on its Mars Express probe.

Coradini argues that having a camera sending back images of a reactive artwork from Mars could be of "huge public interest".

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