How to explain Earth to extraterrestrials, without using words

Posted on April 29th, 2016 by Aloha

This photo of Earth is one of many included on the Golden Record, which is currently hurtling through space on two spacecraft. Instructions on how to play back the sounds and images on the record areincluded with the disc along with a cartridge and a needle. Photograph courtesy of NASA Launch Gallery.

Originally published for National Geographic

By Becky Harlan

Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were launched into space, with the mission to explore our solar system ““from Jupiter to Neptune,” before leaving for interstellar space and the unexplored beyond. In the case that either craft was intercepted by intelligent life, each was fixed with a gold-coated record containing information about life on Earth — a sort of message in a bottle for aliens.

The record contained, among other things, an audio montage titled “Sounds of Earth,” Beethoven’s Cavatina, greetings in 54 languages, and photographs that visually communicate facts about the physics, biology, sociology, and beauty of our planet.

Originally, the team chaired by Carl Sagan planned to include six photos: “The Earth, the DNA molecule, and a few images of humans and animals.” But the photos, which were converted into sound and written on the record, took up less space than anticipated. The capacity increased nearly 20-fold, and 118 photos were included.

Every image chosen had to communicate as much information as possible as clearly as possible in order to be understood without any context. A list of subjects was compiled by astronomer Frank Drake. Sagan then tasked his artistic collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg, with curating the image sequence, a role he took very seriously.


The gold aluminum cover is designed to protect the Voyager 1 and 2 gold-plated records from micrometeorite bombardment. Photograph by Universal History Archive, UIG via Getty.

Lomberg and the team had only six weeks from start to finish to agree on the image edit, clear the rights, and actually fabricate the disc that would be used. In those six weeks they developed their “go to” image sources: the United Nations, Time, Sports Illustrated, NASA, and National Geographic.

“Of the greatest assistance was the National Geographic Society,” Lomberg says inMurmurs of Earth, the handbook explaining anything and everything Golden Record-related. “In a way, they do routinely and on a larger scale what we were trying to do—give a full picture of Earth and its inhabitants.”

In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, carrying photos of our world with it. But even if our message never meets the eyes of extraterrestrials (or whatever sort of sensory receptors they might have), Lomberg considers Voyager and its message a huge success. “As long as the space program is remembered,” he says, “people will remember that we made this thing that tried to show Earth for aliens, and it’s out there, two of them are out there, and getting further from us with every passing hour.”

So without further ado, here are ten of the National Geographic images that are, at this very moment, hurtling through space. Each photo is followed by the rationale for its inclusion on the record, as excerpted from Lomberg’s Murmurs of Earth.

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