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Now You Too Can Own a Piece of Space History

The engraver who inscribed Carl Sagan’s and Frank Drake’s 1973 message to extraterrestrials is now taking orders

Image on the original Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques (NASA)
smithsonian.com

In 1972 and 1973, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 blasted into space with small gold-anodized aluminum plaques bolted to their antenna support struts. Designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake and illustrated by Linda Salzman Sagan, the plaques sported images detailing the location of Earth within the galaxy as well as images of a human woman and man. They were bolted to the spacecraft—the first to leave our solar system—in the off chance that an alien civilization found the probes.

But, as Elizabeth Howell at Seeker reports, at the time only three of the plaques were created—two for the probes and one for NASA. Now, in honor of the Pioneer mission's 45th anniversary, a designer has teamed up with the plaque’s original engraver to create exact replicas.

According to the plaque’s page on Kickstarter, Duane King, who has done design work for companies including Apple and Nike, has been fascinated with space since he was a child—inspired by Sagan’s Cosmos series in the early 1980s. So King decided to make a replica of the infamous space plaque himself.

After finding a documentary about the image’s creation, he realized the man who made them might still be around. Turns out he was. King teamed up with engraver Ponciano Barbosa at Precision Engravers in San Carlos, California, to produce the images.

They are now taking orders for two versions of the plaque. The first is an exact replica of the six-by-nine-inch, gold-anodized aluminum plaque, which will be manually engraved by Barbosa and his team using the original 1972 design. Two-hundred of those are available for $399 each. Another batch will be produced by a laser-engraving machine and start at $99. The Kickstarter is now well over its $70,000 production goal.

According to The Planetary Society, founded by Sagan, the idea for the plaque was suggested to him just a few months before the launch of Pioneer 10. Sagan brought the idea to NASA, which thought it was cool. So Sagan, along with Cornell University professor Frank Drake and Sagan’s wife Linda, who is an artist and writer, assembled humanity's message to the universe in just a few short weeks. 

In the upper left of the plaque is an image of hydrogen atoms in two energy states—a universal constant for space and time. When hydrogen atoms change states, electromagnetic radiation is released. And this wave of radiation is the basis for measurement for the rest of the plaque: The radiation lasts 0.7 nanoseconds (basis for time) and extends roughly 21 centimeters (basis for length). 

The plaque shows a woman standing eight of these hydrogen units tall, or five feet five inches tall. It also shows the height of the naked, ethnically ambiguous humans in relation to the Pioneer probe itself.

There is also a star burst of lines and dashes, which indicates the distance of our Sun to pulsars—neutron stars that emit regular burst of radiation—within our galaxy as well as a diagram of our Solar System showing that the probe comes from the third planet from the Sun.

The Planetary Society writes that it’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever find the craft and it will probably be lost in the “immense tranquility of space." But the plaque does have significance. “The message we sent to the universe still echoes in our ears. Born from such a mission—one that spans space, time, and perhaps, civilizations—is a new mindset, an otherworldly perspective,” they write.

As Howell reports, NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11 in 1995 and Pioneer 10 winked out in 2003. When the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977, they carried with them an even more sophisticated attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials, also created by Sagan. Those missions sent up gold records containing the sites and sounds of Earth. Last year, more than 10,700 people donated to Kickstarter to receive a 40th anniversary replica of that record. The project raised more than $1.3 million.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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