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May 22, 2003

Deeper Impact
by Kenneth Silber
(from Tech Central Station)

In his excellent 1999 book "Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia," Gregory Benford, a physicist, author and TCS contributor, wrote about two ways of transmitting information to the future. One is what Benford called "High Church"; it involved efforts to convey the best of current culture through monuments and the like. Benford called the other mode "Kilroy was Here," after a somewhat mysterious graffiti message that emerged around the time of World War II.

Kilroy messages are those aimed at leaving some kind of mark, with little regard for content or quality. Benford described how a project to place a marker aboard the Cassini space probe to Saturn degenerated from High Church to Kilroy. The original plan called for a diamond disk with images and symbols indicating humanity's place in space and time, for the benefit of whatever beings might visit Saturn's orbit in the far future. What ended up being sent was a CD-ROM with some 600,000 scanned signatures, plus a few baby footprints and pet paw prints.

I reviewed Benford's book for the now-defunct webzine (As best I can tell, my review is no longer online, which is vaguely ironic given the topic. I would not be surprised if no physical or electronic copy of my review now exists.) At the time, I was receptive to Benford's negative appraisal of Kilroy messages. I am far less so now (although some of his examples, such as tourists carving their names into ancient monuments are, I agree, reprehensible). What causes me to rethink my position is another NASA project that involves sending names into space.

A spacecraft called Deep Impact, scheduled for launch in December 2004, has the mission of rendezvousing with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005. Deep Impact will release an "impactor," weighing more than 800 pounds, which will crash into the comet and create a crater that may be as wide as a football stadium and over 10 stories deep. The resulting data and images will allow new insights into the composition of comets, the history of the solar system, and the implications of a collision between Earth and a comet.

Project managers at NASA and the University of Maryland recently announced that people could have their names added to a disc that will be placed aboard the impactor. If you're interested, go to this website. It's free of charge. (You've paid for the $280 million mission with your tax dollars. Deep Impact is part of NASA's Discovery Program, which performs relatively low-cost missions.) The project will stop taking names in January 2004.

Sending your name to a comet is, in a sense, the ultimate Kilroy message. Far from transmitting high culture to posterity, the mini-CD containing the names will certainly be destroyed in the collision with Comet Tempel 1. Nonetheless, the name disc is a worthwhile effort, for several reasons. It will get a broader range of people interested in the Deep Impact mission; as such, it will be an antidote of sorts to the insularity scientists sometimes show toward the public that pays many of their bills. The disc will contribute to science education, providing an avenue for students to learn more about the mission's serious scientific objectives.

The disc will allow people with a strong interest in science and space to convey, in a small but symbolic way, a sense of the importance that they attach to these subjects. In addition, the disc underscores that space technology is not solely about science but has relevance to various social and individual objectives, including adventure and recreation.

The Deep Impact mission, incidentally, provides a more substantial way for the public to participate. Amateur astronomers have played a valuable role in monitoring Comet Tempel 1, sharing their observations under the project's Small Telescope Science Program. The impactor's collision with the comet is expected to be visible through small telescopes from some parts of the Earth. The Fourth of July in 2005 should have some unusual fireworks.

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