GOLDEN, Colo. — A telecommunications satellite launched late last month is carrying what may be one of the longest-lasting material artifacts of contemporary civilization.
Affixed to the exterior of the newly lofted EchoStar 16 satellite is an archival disc containing 100 photographs representing modern human history.
The full artifact is composed of two interlocking gold-plated aluminum jackets housing the silicon disc on which the photographs are nano-etched. The gold-plated shell was designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.
And just in case visitors from afar happen upon EchoStar 16, a cover etching includes a temporal map consisting of a star chart, pulsar timings and other information describing the epoch from which the spacecraft came.
Carleton College astrophysicist Joel Weisberg collaborated with artist Trevor Paglen on the design of the scientific messages etched into the artifact’s cover.
Dubbed The Last Pictures, the archival disc is a project commissioned by New York-based Creative Time, an organization that has worked with more than 2,000 artists to produce hundreds of innovative public art projects.
Englewood, Colo.-based EchoStar Corp.s latest direct-broadcast television satellite was built by Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, Calif., and launched Nov. 20 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Proton Breeze M rocket booked through Reston, Va.-based International Launch Services.
Ultimately, the spacecraft will be maneuvered into orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth.
“Watching EchoStar 16 and The Last Pictures lift off from Baikonur last night, I was overwhelmed and humbled by the number of people who worked long hours, nights, and weekends, to make this dream of a project come true,” Paglen said. “The Last Pictures has gone to space where it will begin a much longer voyage to the depths of time.”
EchoStar donated both the services of its engineers and placement space on its satellite.
As a cultural artifact of our time, The Last Pictures is likened to a cosmic message in a bottle to the future and a poetic meditation on the legacy of our civilization.
In selecting the 100 images for the project, Paglen consulted with scientists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians and geologists. His choice of images include depictions of the equipment used in the construction of the atomic bomb; smiling children in a World War II-era Japanese internment camp; as well as a Soyuz rocket launch and the iconic Earthrise image taken during NASA’s Apollo 8 Moon mission.
“The Last Pictures is a document of this historical moment, but it’s not meant to be a representation of humanity … it’s not supposed to speak for everybody. It’s a very particular kind of document, one person’s impression about what the world might look like at this particular moment,” Paglen said. “In a way, that’s all we can ask out of art … things that help us see who we are now. And the best I can hope for is that this project will give us a way that we can actually look at ourselves.”
The complete set of images can be found in the book “The Last Pictures,” co-published by Creative Time Books and University of California Press, available from bookstores and online.
The project was sparked by the idea that high-flying communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created.
Paglen said that something very remarkable has happened over the last 50 years: Humans have built a ring around our planet, not unlike the rings of Saturn. But instead of being made out of dust and debris, the ring around Earth that’s been created is made out of machines, he said.
The Last Pictures venture is also viewed as part of a long tradition of public intersections of art and space. There are plaques riding on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively. Then there is the Frank Drake Arecibo message of 1974, beamed toward star cluster M13 some 25,000 light years away.
Similarly, gold records are affixed to the Voyager spacecraft that departed Earth in 1977, each containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life on Earth and suggesting the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrial life forms or future humans.
“The Last Pictures acts much like a tombstone or cave painting from a time long forgotten,” said Nato Thompson, chief curator for Creative Time.
“Ultimately, The Last Pictures will hover over the Earth in virtual perpetuity,” Thompson said, “reminding us — like a haunting shadow — that the greatest hope of lasting communication resides in the tenuous moment of the present.”