NASA’s mission to an ice-covered moon will contain a message between water worlds

NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft, headed to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa in October 2024, will carry a laser-etched message that celebrates humanity’s connection to water. The message pays homage to previous NASA missions that carried related messages.

Because the president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI, Worldwide, I helped design the message on Clipper with two fellow members of our board of administrators: linguists Sheri Wells-Jensen and Laura Buszard-Welcher. METI Worldwide is a scientific group devoted to transmitting highly effective radio messages to extraterrestrial life.

We collected audio recordings in 103 languages, and we determined convert these into waveforms that present these sounds visually. Colleagues from NASA etched these waveforms into the metallic plate that shields the spacecraft’s delicate electronics from Jupiter’s harsh radiation.

I additionally designed one other a part of the message that visually depicts the wavelengths of water’s constituents, as a result of water is so necessary to the seek for clever life within the universe.

NASA’s design for the Clipper message heading to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Etching messages into spacecraft isn’t a brand new follow, and Clipper’s message suits right into a decades-old custom began by astronomer Carl Sagan.

In 1972 and 1973, two Pioneer spacecraft headed to Jupiter and Saturn carrying metallic plaques engraved with scientific and pictorial messages. In 1977, two Voyager spacecraft headed to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Nepture bearing gold-plated copper phonograph data. These data contained tutorials in arithmetic and chemistry, in addition to music, images and sounds of Earth and greetings in 55 languages.

Water phrases

As water is crucial for all times on Earth, trying to find its presence elsewhere has been key to many NASA missions. Astronomers suspect that Europa, the place Clipper is headed, has an ocean beneath its icy floor, making it a primary candidate for the seek for life within the outer photo voltaic system.

A part of the Clipper message options the phrase for water in 103 languages. We began with audio information collected on-line, however we then wanted to investigate these and discover an output that may very well be engraved on a metallic plate. I ended up going again to among the methods I utilized in a few of my early psycholinguistic analysis, the place I explored how feelings are encoded in speech.

The 103 spoken phrases we recorded symbolize a worldwide snapshot of the variety of Earth’s languages. The outward-facing facet of the Clipper plate exhibits the phrases as waveforms that observe the various depth of sound as every phrase is spoken.

Waveform of the word for water in Catalan – 'aigua.'
The waveform for the Catalan phrase for water – ‘aigua’ – is etched on the Clipper plate. It additionally seems on NASA’s web site.

Every individual whom we recorded saying the phrase “water” for the waveform had a connection to water. For instance, the lawyer who contributed the phrase for water in Uzbek – “suv” – organizes an annual music pageant in Uzbekistan to lift consciousness of the desertification of the Aral Sea.

The native speaker of the Catalan water phrase – “aigua” – hunts for exoplanets, discovering probably liveable planets that orbit different stars.

Wavy lines radiating outwards from a central point.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft, to be launched to Jupiter’s water world moon in October 2024, features a tantalum metallic plate laser-engraved with the phrase for water in 103 languages from world wide. Every phrase is proven as a waveform.

The Drake Equation

Clipper’s message additionally pays homage to astronomer Frank Drake, the daddy of SETI – the Seek for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – by bearing the Drake Equation, his namesake components. By drawing on scientific information, in addition to some greatest guess hunches, the Drake Equation estimates the variety of extraterrestrial civilizations within the galaxy at present sending messages into the cosmos.

By one broadly quoted estimate, there are a tenth as many of those extraterrestrial civilizations as one’s common lifetime in years. If civilizations survive for one million years, for instance, there needs to be about 100,000 within the galaxy. In the event that they final solely a century on common, scientists would estimate that about 10 exist.

An equation in cursive writing.
The Drake Equation is inscribed on the prime of the inward-facing facet of the plate bearing the Clipper message. It’s written in Frank Drake’s handwriting.

Radio astronomers research the universe by analyzing the radiation that chemical parts in area give off. They spend a lot of their time mapping the distribution of probably the most considerable chemical within the universe – hydrogen.

Hydrogen emits radiation at a sure frequency known as the hydrogen line, which radio telescopes can detect. Throughout Mission Ozma, the primary modern-day SETI experiment, Drake regarded for synthetic alerts on the similar frequency, as a result of he figured scientists on different worlds would possibly acknowledge hydrogen as universally vital and broadcast alerts at that frequency.

The water gap

As our group developed our water phrases message, I noticed that the message would solely make sense if it have been found by somebody already aware of the contents inscribed on the plate. The Drake Equation would solely make sense if somebody already knew what every of the phrases within the equation stood for.

The Europa Clipper will crash into Jupiter or one in all its different moons, with Ganymede or Callisto the main candidates. But when for some purpose the mission modifications and it survives that destiny, then people far sooner or later with a radically completely different cultural background and completely different language conventions might retrieve it millennia from now as an historic artifact.

To make sure we had at the very least one a part of the message {that a} distant future scientist would possibly have the ability to perceive, I additionally designed a pictorial illustration of the identical frequency that Drake used for Mission Ozma: the hydrogen line. We engraved this on the Clipper plate, together with a frequency known as the hydroxyl line.

When hydrogen (H+) and hydroxyl (OH-) mix, they kind water. Scientists name the vary of frequencies between these strains the “water gap.” The water gap represents the a part of the radio spectrum the place astronomers carried out the primary SETI experiments.

The inward-facing side of the Clipper's metal plate includes diagrams of radio waves.
The inward-facing facet of the Europa Clipper message contains wavelengths of the hydrogen and hydroxyl emission strains. These symbolize the elements of water. The band of frequencies between these strains is named the ‘water gap.’

We displayed the hydrogen and hydroxyl strains utilizing their wavelengths within the Clipper message. The metallic plate additionally has diagrams exhibiting what hydrogen and hydroxyl appear like on the atomic degree.

We’re hoping that future chemists would acknowledge these chemical elements because the components of water. In the event that they do, we could have succeeded in speaking at the very least just a few core scientific ideas throughout time, area and language.

Waveforms let our group tie the messages on the 2 sides of the Clipper plate collectively. On the water phrases facet, over 100 phrases are depicted by their waveforms. On the opposite facet, the wavelengths of hydrogen and hydroxyl – the constituents of water – are etched into the plate.

METI Worldwide funded the gathering and curation of the water phrases, in addition to my design of the hydrogen and hydroxyl strains, offering these to NASA for free of charge.

Whereas designing the message for the Europa Clipper, we bought to mirror on the significance of water on Earth, and take into consideration why astronomers really feel so compelled to seek for it beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The spacecraft is scheduled to enter Jupiter’s orbit in April 2030.


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