A spacecraft insinging a duet with trees on the ground sounds like a scene from a bizarre science fiction movie. But if a group of NASA scientists and artists have their will, it will be a real collaboration that lasts 200 years.
Team-up of Trees and Machine, a public art / science project called The Tree of Life, “connects Earth and outer space through a song transmitted via radio waves between an orbiting spacecraft and an unlikely technological component: a set of living trees that has been enabled to function as large, living antenna systems, “reads a description of the space project of the Space Song Foundation, a newly established nonprofit dedicated to designing and manufacturing sustainable technology that supports long-range space missions.
Digital sensors will detect shifts in the environment of the trees, and custom software will translate these data points into sound frequencies that radiate to the small, distant spacecraft. In return, the vessel will return data on its own operational capacity.
“As the light, water and temperature of the trees change, so does the melody, volume and actual sound of the song,” says Julia Christensen, president of the Space Song Foundation, which stands at the crossroads of science, art and design.
“In the short term, we hear shifts in the song, when day turns to night, when clouds pass over the tree, when the seasons change, etc.,” adds Christensen, chairman of the study arts program at Oberlin College. “But in the very long run – decades or centuries – we will hear major global changes in the climate and other changes on our planet.”
The Tree of Life began as part of an initiative to design a potential future spacecraft to reach Proxima B, an exoplanet 4.2 light-years away that appears to host potential life. Traveling that distance would take an estimated 6,300 years with current technology, which is why researchers are looking at innovations that push the boundaries of technological longevity. Artists help them get creative.
Artists involved in the Space Song Foundation could have chosen just about any object for the terrestrial piece of their experimental communication system. So why trees? Because they ought to continue to exist for many decades and can tell a bigger story about life on our planet.
“The tree of life takes steps to demonstrate our long-term approach to design and nature, on earth and in outer space,” says Christensen, whose work explores consumerism and the complexity of e-waste on our planet and, a growing concern as space exploration becomes more accessible.
But while the trees are ready for the spotlight, the spacecraft at the center of the acoustic experiment has not yet been constructed.
Steve Matousek, advanced concept manager at NASA JPL’s Innovation Lab, says the team will begin testing cube-based prototypes next year. By (hopefully) operating continuously for 200 years, the spacecraft would push the constraints of technological obsolescence beyond the limited lifespan of cell phones, tablets, and laptops that populate Earth today.
“The design has no moving parts and the electronics are only on 1% of the time,” says Matousek, who has worked on missions from Voyager to Juno to Mars Cube One. “Imagine if your car, your computer or your phone were to last for 200 years. The simpler the spacecraft, the better.”
The Space Song Foundation is raising money for the Tree of Life on Kickstarter, where the project has drawn more than $ 11,500 toward its $ 15,000 goal, with three days left of the campaign. (Keep in mind that not all Kickstarter projects deliver on time or as promised.)
If all goes according to plan, the first two trees will begin to “sing” in public spaces in New York and Los Angeles, with speakers broadcasting the duet in real time. Funds raised on Kickstarter will go to the equipment needed to connect the two trees.
So how does it sound exactly when a spacecraft and trees share the microphone? Don’t expect anything like David Bowie’s Space Oddity or the Beatles’ Across the Universe. Test sound for the project sounds more like the constant scream you hear during testing of the emergency dispatch system.
However, it is only the basic track. The song will be open source. Musicians can add it, DJs can remix it, and scientists can use it to record shifts in datasets. It will belong to all of us.