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The Last Pictures project sending gold-plated time capsule into orbit


October 5, 2012

The Last Pictures time capsule

The Last Pictures time capsule

Image Gallery (11 images)

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.

Children in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War

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.

Source: Creative Time via Computerworld

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Man if aliens or next generation sentient tellurians find this collection of pictures, it will surely confuse the crap out of them. They'll think we built structures next to giant fluffy things (house in dust storm) or created massive underground cities (trucks driving through huge brick tunnels). What a curious approach to use pictures that are so potentially misleading to a mind trying to decipher the past. I guess it really doesn't matter, though. I agree that there's a strong change the satellite will be scooped up with the rest of the orbiting space junk as space commerce matures.


Really unimpressed with their photo choice. Japanese children playing in water in an internment camp? The pictorial value is identical to any group of children playing in a small body of water, why choose one of odd historical origin? The cherry blossom photo is hard to differentiate from a natural system of river tributaries. I see the creator admitted it's absurd, but for how beautiful the item is, and the effort put into it, I'd think more universal and informative photos could have been used, such as a human next to a human skeleton. Whatever, it's his project, he can do what he wants I guess.

Steve Pender

If it makes it into space, I'll give you $85 for it.


Why send something like this into orbit at all?? I thought and maybe I am way off here, but that all the satellites in orbit will eventually suffer orbit decay and end up coming down to the planet again at some point... Does it have self adjusting boosters to keep it in it's geosynchronous orbit? But I guess this line really sums it up...."for all its pretensions and space technology, it’s just a piece of conceptual art"....

Chris Waddell

This business of sending Beatles albums, photos on CD's into space is naive at best. It assumes that after all "Aliens" evolved identically to us. Typical Earth-centered thinking, the universe revolves around Homo Sapiens, reminiscent of the ignorance and self-centered posture of the Spanish inquisition. In reality they would have to reverse engineer the complicated digital photo storage on a CD, and create a CD scanner and visual display screen. Then this also assumes that they have eyes that see the narrow band of light that we do, then make sense of 2 dimensional photos of things that are living, inert objects, etc. Our own species is still squabbling over the meaning of Mayan, Egyptian Glyphs, and we created them. Send up something that would demonstrate intelligence, something all species could immediately grasp. Samples of each element on the Periodic Table, in order, Hydrogen, Helium, etc. for example. This would indicate that we are smarter than a mere species of shutter-bugs. These meaningless Items would be discarded as the space trash that it is, or preserved and studied for centuries by curious alien archeologists.


What a complete waste of time. Utterly useless space junk never to be seen again. The idea is crazy & the people who funded it must need thier heads examined.

This disk is almost the very definition of the word "pointless".

Anthony Collett
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