NASA is sending a poem by United States Poet Laureate Ada Limón on its upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which will search for life on the icy moon of Jupiter. The agency has also invited the public to add their names to the spacecraft, which will travel billions of miles through our solar system.
This “message in a bottle” resembles a past effort from the agency in 1977, when NASA launched two copies of a phonograph disc called the Golden Record, with one version on each of the Voyager probes. That time capsule is still flying through space, containing sounds from Earth, like laughter, music and animal noises.
Limón’s poem, titled “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa,” is an “evolution” of NASA’s Golden Record, says Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist, to Miriam Kramer of Axios. But with this latest attempt to send a piece of ourselves into space, the goal is different.
“There’s no message to aliens here,” Pappalardo tells Axios. “This is purely a message to ourselves and a symbolic message to Europa.”
Limón was appointed the U.S. poet laureate in 2022. Growing up, her work was largely inspired by artists, including her mother. She tells NPR’s Nina Kravinsky that writing an original piece of work for the mission was one of her most difficult assignments.
“When NASA contacted me and asked me if I would write an original poem, I immediately got really excited and said yes. And then we hung up the call, and I thought, ‘How am I going to do that?’” Limón tells NPR.
But one concept stood out to her when she was first told about the mission: water. Water is key to the Europa Clipper, which has a primary goal of determining whether the distant moon could support life. Scientists are “almost certain” that Europa has a vast ocean beneath its icy crust, per NASA. In her poem, Limón writes about wonder, mystery and the water that “unites us.”
Limón’s words will be engraved on the side of the spacecraft, representing all of Earth. “I think to have it feel collective is really, really extraordinary to me, because it does feel like it’s not my poem,” Limón says to Axios. “It does feel like a collective poem. And as soon as I wrote it, it felt like, ‘Oh, this belongs to Earth. This is our poem for Earth.’”
To add to the collective nature of the gesture, NASA is also sending people’s names to space. Anyone can sign on virtually, and the space agency will etch their name onto one of several microchips that will be mounted on the spacecraft.
“We are excited to share with the world the opportunity to be a part of Europa Clipper’s journey,” says Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “I just love the thought that our names will be traveling across our solar system.”
The spacecraft is set to depart Earth in October 2024 and embark on a 1.8-billion-mile journey to the Jupiter system. Scientists estimate that the spacecraft will reach orbit around Jupiter in 2030. As the spacecraft loops around the planet and flies by Europa about 50 times, it will gather data on the moon’s atmosphere, ice and ocean—and accumulate another 500 million miles.
Currently, the Europa Clipper is being assembled—and livestreamed—at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.