A message to Europa from the people of Earth

Silver triangle metallic object with dozens of fuzzy lines representing sound waves.
Here’s one side of a commemorative plate mounted on NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. The art on this side of the plate features waveforms that are visual representations of the sound waves formed by the word water in 103 languages. At center is a symbol representing the American Sign Language sign for water. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.
  • The Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October of 2024.
  • Water connects Earth and Europa, the two ocean worlds Europa Clipper will travel between on its journey.
  • A commemorative plate on Europa Clipper features a poem, plus waveforms of the word water in 103 languages. And it includes a microchip with over 2.6 million names submitted by earthlings.
  • NASA/ JPL published this original article on March 8, 2024. Edits by EarthSky.

    NASA unveils design for message heading to Europa

    It’s become a NASA tradition for the space agency to send inspirational messages into space. And the agency has special plans for the Europa Clipper when it launches toward Jupiter’s moon Europa later this year. Europa isn’t inhabited in the same sense that Earth is inhabited. Perhaps it isn’t inhabited in any sense at all; we just don’t know yet. But Europa does show strong evidence of an ocean under its icy crust. Plus, it has more than twice the amount of water of all of Earth’s oceans combined. A triangular metal plate on Europa Clipper will honor that connection to Earth in several ways.

    At the heart of the artifact is an engraving of U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s handwritten In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa. Also, it’ll contain the silicon microchip stenciled with 2.6 million names, submitted by the people of Earth. The microchip will be the centerpiece of an illustration of a bottle amid the Jovian system – a reference to NASA’s Message in a Bottle campaign. That campaign invited the public to send their names to Europa on the spacecraft.

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    A message to Europa

    Made of the metal tantalum and about 7 by 11 inches (18 by 28 centimeters), the plate features graphic elements on both sides. The outward-facing panel features art that highlights Earth’s connection to Europa. Linguists collected recordings of the word water spoken in 103 languages from families of languages around the world. They converted the audio files into waveforms (visual representations of sound waves) and etched them into the plate. The waveforms radiate out from a symbol representing the American Sign Language sign for water.

    Message to Europa: Silver metal triangle with images and writing on it.
    Here’s the other side of the plate. It features U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s handwritten In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa. Plus, this message to Europa will be affixed with a silicon microchip stenciled with millions of names submitted by the public. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

    Hear the audio of the spoken languages and see the sign.

    In the spirit of the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record, which carries sounds and images to convey the richness and diversity of life on Earth, the layered message on Europa Clipper aims to spark the imagination and offer a unifying vision.

    Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said:

    The content and design of Europa Clipper’s vault plate are swimming with meaning. The plate combines the best humanity has to offer across the universe – science, technology, education, art, and math. The message of connection through water, essential for all forms of life as we know it, perfectly illustrates Earth’s tie to this mysterious ocean world we are setting out to explore.

    Who will read the message?

    Europa is not inhabited. And Europa Clipper won’t be landing. After arriving at the Jupiter system in 2030, the spacecraft is intended to orbit Jupiter for four years. At the end of its mission, it won’t be allowed to crash into Europa, because the moon’s surface may be fragile and because Europa’s oceans are suspected to be relatively near the surface. That means contamination to Europa’s ocean from an earthly craft would, in theory, be possible. And nobody wants that!

    So, when its mission ends, the craft might be directed to crash into another of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede, the biggest of the jovian moons. One can then imagine a future traveler to Ganymede – whether from Earth or elsewhere – finding the message in wreckage of the spacecraft.

    Reaching out to the cosmos

    In 2030, after a 1.6-billion-mile (2.6-billion-kilometer) journey, Europa Clipper will begin orbiting Jupiter, making 49 close flybys of Europa. In order to determine if there are conditions that could support life, the spacecraft’s suite of science instruments will gather data about the moon’s subsurface ocean, icy crust, thin atmosphere, and space environment. The electronics for those instruments are housed in a massive metal vault designed to protect them from Jupiter’s punishing radiation. The commemorative plate will seal an opening in the vault.

    Learn more about Europa Clipper’s vault plate engravings and the inspiration for the plate’s multilayered message.

    Because searching for habitable conditions is central to the mission, the Drake Equation is etched onto the plate as well, on the inward-facing side. Astronomer Frank Drake developed the mathematical formulation in 1961 to estimate the possibility of finding advanced civilizations beyond Earth.

    Message to Europa contains artwork of radio waves

    In addition, artwork on the inward-facing side of the plate will include a reference to the radio frequencies considered plausible for interstellar communication, symbolizing how humanity uses this radio band to listen for messages from the cosmos. These frequencies match the radio waves emitted in space by the components of water and are known by astronomers as the water hole. They are depicted as radio emission lines on the plate.

    Finally, the plate includes a portrait of one of the founders of planetary science, Ron Greeley, whose early efforts to develop a Europa mission two decades ago laid the foundation for Europa Clipper.

    According to project Scientist Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California:

    We’ve packed a lot of thought and inspiration into this plate design, as we have into this mission itself. It’s been a decades-long journey, and we can’t wait to see what Europa Clipper shows us at this water world.

    More about the mission

    Europa Clipper’s main science goal is to determine whether there are places below Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, that could support life. The mission’s three main science objectives are to determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and its surface interactions with the ocean below, to investigate its composition, and to characterize its geology. The mission’s detailed exploration of Europa will help scientists better understand the astrobiological potential for habitable worlds beyond our planet.

    Bottom line: NASA released images of the commemorative plate for the Europa Clipper spacecraft. The plate includes a microchip containing more than 2.6 million names submitted by the public. The Europa Clipper is set to launch in October.

    Via NASA/ JPL

    March 12, 2024

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