A Time-Capsule Launched into Space for Aliens to Find When All the Humans Are Gone

Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all traces of our stay here, hundreds of dead satellites will remain in orbit around the earth. Along with these pictures.

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Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

If humanity's earthly tenure isn't fated to end with the Mayan calendar next month, it is certain to end someday. It's the sort of thing artist and author, Trevor Paglen, thinks about a lot. He knows, for example, that we homo sapiens have occupied the earth a mere .004 percent of its 4.5 billion-year history. He knows the sun will one day expand, torching our planet in the process. And he knows that life on earth is a few million years overdue for its next sweeping extinction event. We may someday build lives on other planets; here, we're on a fixed-term lease.

Still, as Paglen's latest multimedia project, "The Last Pictures," underscores, we humans have created a legacy to outlast us: Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all trace of our inhabitance, hundreds of dead satellites orbiting the planet will remain, immune to the terrestrial effects of rust, erosion, and decay -- the last artifacts left to say "we were here." A dubious bequest, perhaps. But for Paglen that ring of future space junk seemed the obvious place to put a public art installation: an archive of 100 black-and-white photographic images, built to last for billions of years, launched aboard a communications satellite into outer space from a site in Kazakhstan last week.

Paglen, who holds a master's of fine arts and a Ph.D. in geography, has a history of making art about cosmic-sized ideas. For his 2010 project, "The Fence," Paglen photographed otherwise invisible electromagnetic waves produced by an immense radar system surrounding the United States, part of an early warning system against ballistic missile attacks. For "The Other Night Sky," he produced a series of photographs between 2007 and 2010 documenting American spy satellites and other space debris, using tracking data culled from amateur satellite trackers around the world.

The seeds for "The Last Pictures" began germinating in Paglen's mind while working on such projects, he said during an interview in his New York apartment, the week before the space launch. He began to wonder how long the satellites he was photographing -- or, indeed, any satellite -- remained in orbit.

"Most satellites are in what are called low earth orbits, about 300 to about 1,200 or 1,400 kilometers" above the Earth, Paglen discovered. "There's no clear line that separates the atmosphere from space -- it just kind of gets wispier and wispier and thins out. The vast majority of satellites experience small amounts of atmospheric drag, and that drag accumulates over the years and eventually pulls them back down towards earth." For some it takes a few days, others a few hundred years. All will burn during reentry to our planet, sooner or later. 

But satellites occupying a very specific space -- geostationary orbit -- have an estimated lifespan approaching infinity. Forming a ring around the earth 35,786 kilometers above the equator, these machines maintain a relatively fixed position relative to the Earth's rotation (appearing motionless in the night sky). They are high enough to escape atmospheric drag, but not so high as to get pulled away by other gravitational forces. "These satellites are the longest-lasting things that humans have ever made," Paglen explained.  

"Very few, if any, traces of human civilization [will remain] on the surface of the earth," he said. "But a ring of dead satellites and spaceships will remain in orbit, essentially, forever."

For an artist, the implications were paradoxical: One could, it seemed, create art effectively guaranteed to last forever -- our people's sturdiest time capsule. But the only place to "bury" it was outer space. It presented obvious challenges that wanted institutional support. Paglen connected with Creative Time, a Manhattan-based arts nonprofit, whose president and artistic director, Anne Pasternak, had long wanted to put art in outer space. Pasternak has witnessed space launches at Cape Canaveral, most recently the Mars rover launch in November, 2011 -- an experience she called "better than the Olympics." That is to say, she recognizes the ennobling sentiments of space exploration, but "there's another side of space exploration that's quite dark," she said. Dark like ballistic missiles and spy satellites. "Trevor completely changed my experience of looking up at the night sky," she said.

"I used to look up at the night sky," she added, "and say 'Oh, stars, oh, planets, how lovely, I'm insignificant, isn't that wonderful? There's a whole big universe out there, it's so beautiful.' And now, I look up at the night sky and realize that the things I'm looking at are man-made things as well. ... It feels polluted."

* * *

Paglen and Creative Time decided early that they wanted the project to be a photographic archive. Paglen also knew he wanted it to be several shades darker than one of the project's obvious forebears: Carl Sagan's Golden Records.

Launched in 1977 aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft, the Golden Records were designed as a greeting to whatever intelligent alien the spacecraft might meet beyond the solar system. They contained nothing about disease, conflict, or the Cold War nuclear fears that drove the American space program. Its curators attempted to present something like universality, loading the records with analog images and recordings expressing human variety (audio recordings of greetings in 55 different languages) and similarity -- like its drawing of a nude man and woman, criticized for being both puritanical (the woman has no vulva) and chauvinistic (the figures are clearly white and Occidental).

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Austin Considine is a writer based in Brooklyn. A regular contributor to The New York Times and Art in America, he has also written for Guernica, ESPN The Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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