See the Messages NASA Will Send to Space on Its Upcoming Mission to Europa

A metal plate affixed to the Europa Clipper is engraved with a poem, tributes to scientists and waveforms representing the word “water” in 103 languages, among other drawings

the exterior of europa, with dark orange streaks
Europa’s icy surface hides an ocean of liquid water underneath, making it a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life. NASA / JPL-Caltech / SETI Institute

When NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft launches toward Jupiter this year, it will ferry more than just scientific instruments. Hitching a ride will also be a commemorative plate with the etchings of select artistic designs that symbolize humanity.

Specifically, the highly anticipated mission will travel to Europa, one of Jupiter’s 95 known moons. But even among its numerous siblings, the icy Europa stands out. Its incredibly glossy exterior—the smoothest surface in the solar system—hides a vast liquid ocean underneath. This salty sea contains twice as much liquid water as Earth has in all its oceans, and it may constantly remake the face of the moon to hide scars of past impact craters.

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo space probe have detected evidence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface, potentially indicating the subsurface sea has a source of heat that could sustain organisms. Europa could be habitable; perhaps it could harbor marine life.

Europa Clipper may yet solve that mystery.

While the mission has many scientific goals to check off, it also bears an artistic purpose: A triangular plate onboard, measuring 7 by 11 inches in size, will be adorned with meaningful symbols that allude to humankind’s fascination with the Jovian system and the never-ending drive for space exploration.

“The content and design of Europa Clipper’s vault plate are swimming with meaning,” says Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA, in a statement. “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.”

a triangular metal plate with curved edges and holes for screws, demonstrating the engraving of a poem, a portrait, orbiting moons and a mathematical equation
One side of a commemorative plate on Europa Clipper will contain a poem, the Drake Equation, a portrait and other illustrations. NASA / JPL-Caltech

The plate is made of tantalum metal and doubles as a protective lid to shield the spacecraft’s delicate electronics. Its front bears an inscription of a handwritten poem, “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa,” by United States Poet Laureate Ada Limón. Above the poem is an illustration of the Jovian system and its four Galilean moons, including Europa.

At the center of the etched orbital rings is not Jupiter, but a bottle—a reference to NASA’s “Message in a Bottle” campaign that invited the public to submit their names to be sent on the mission. The result of the campaign is a silicon microchip on the panel with the names of 2.6 million people stenciled onto it.

In a nod to NASA’s search for life on the icy moon, the Drake Equation has been carved near the plate’s apex. This formula was developed by astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the number of other technologically advanced civilizations across the universe. The plate also pays homage to Ron Greeley, a planetary geologist whose research two decades ago paved the way for the Europa Clipper mission. Greeley’s portrait is engraved on the plate in the lower left corner.

a triangular metal plate with sound wave engravings emanating from a small circle in the middle
Etched on the other side of the plate are waveforms for the word “water” in 103 languages and a symbol representing “water” in American Sign Language. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Utilizing all the space on the tiny plate, its other side is also packed with symbolism: It includes engravings of the waveforms for the word “water” spoken in 103 different languages. These waveforms radiate out from a symbol representing “water” in American Sign Language. The emphasis of water highlights the connection between Europa and our home world—both are laden with oceans that can potentially incubate life.

Europa Clipper is not NASA’s first attempt to incorporate arts and culture into a spacecraft design. In 1977, NASA’s twin Voyager probes that sailed to the edges of the solar system carried golden records containing 115 images, 90 minutes of music, audio greetings in 55 different languages and clips of natural sounds on Earth. This was the first interstellar message from humans to intelligent life in the universe, writes CNN’s Ashley Strickland. The Voyager records can be played under the stylus of a phonograph-like contraption, if extraterrestrials ever intercept them.

But this time around, the triangular plate is not intended for extraterrestrial communication. Instead, it’s more of an artistic flex. “None of these [designs] could be interpreted if they were discovered by someone who wasn’t already familiar with the contents,” astrobiologist and psychologist Douglas Vakoch tells Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky. “The Drake Equation wouldn’t make sense unless someone already knows what each of the terms stands for, and the poem would be intelligible only to a reader of English.” Vakoch is the founder and president of METI International, a nonprofit that conducts research on the intricacies of making first contact with alien civilizations. His team contributed to the design of the water words on the plate.

Though the upcoming mission isn’t going to send a message to aliens, its plate provides a clue to how any extraterrestrial civilization can best get in contact with humans. An engraving of emission lines demonstrates radio frequencies that match the radio waves emitted by components of water molecules. Astronomers call this band the “water hole,” and it’s at this frequency that scientists listen for any messages that may be coming from space.

NASA's Design for Message Heading to Jupiter's Moon Europa

Grand as Europa Clipper’s purpose is, its journey has barely begun. The spacecraft is slated to start its 1.6-billion-mile trek from Earth to the Jovian system this October. If all goes well, Clipper will reach its target in April 2030 and begin its four-year mission of uncovering Europa’s secrets.

Once it arrives, the craft will conduct 49 flybys of Europa. A significant part of its mission is to study the geology of the moon, its icy cap and how the ice interacts with the ocean below. Perhaps most tantalizingly, it will attempt to answer the question of whether we Earthlings are alone in the universe—and whether Europa houses some of our living neighbors.

Still, the metal plate shows Europa Clipper is more than a scientific mission. It’s a reminder that the human experience is a rich tapestry of our scientific curiosity, our artistic appreciation and our diverse cultures. Once the spacecraft leaves Earth’s shores, it will be an interplanetary gesture of all that and more, whether or not any intelligent life chances upon it.

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