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The Last Pictures
The collection of images included on EchoStar XVI may be easier for any extraterrestrial intelligences to find than the plaques and records flown on the Pioneer and Voyager missions. (credit: Creative Time)

The Last Pictures: Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 3)

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The fate of the EchoStar XVI Artifact

In the “Epilogue: Deep Futures” chapter of The Last Pictures, Paglen discusses the ultimate destiny for the communications satellite and its rather unique passenger. He wonders if EchoStar XVI and the Artifact will survive all sorts of potential mishaps way out there in space, including the day when our sun becomes a red giant that could consume Earth and its artificial ring of satellites. Paglen imagines EchoStar XVI surviving not only that phase of our star’s existence but also its subsequent white dwarf stage several billion years later.

Untouched by either human or alien appendages during all these eons, the artist’s vision for his creation eventually reaches into the very remote future:

In a hundred trillion years, star formation will begin to cease throughout the Universe. One by one, the points of light that dot the Cosmos will go black until they are all gone. By this time a wayward neutron star or pulsar will have come perilously close to what was once the sun, sending a great wave through spacetime, spinning EchoStar XVI and The Last Pictures off into never-ending darkness.

Paglen’s interpretation for his work is epic, ominous, poetic; even romantic in a sense, to be sure. But just how realistic is it? Of course, there is no way to know exactly what will happen to EchoStar XVI and the Artifact even in the next few centuries; however, we can make some educated guesses. Understanding what might happen to the satellite and its cargo will also help us to determine the fate of all the other spacecraft and their accompanying rocket stages and other debris drifting about our solar system and beyond.

Paglen’s interpretation for his work is epic, ominous, poetic; even romantic in a sense, to be sure. But just how realistic is it?

If left alone by humanity, as Paglen sees the relatively immediate destiny of The Last Pictures (he does not hold out much hope for our species conquering the stars or even much closer to the world of our birth), EchoStar XVI could last for many millions of years in supersynchronous orbit. As noted in earlier parts of this essay, the satellite will very likely be battered by meteoroids, solar flares, and cosmic rays. The mass of this by-then dead relic, as well as the Artifact cover, should protect those one hundred small photographs through all but the worst of those celestial possibilities. It must be recalled that even in the relative vicinity of Earth, space is still wide open and in a vacuum state more pure than anything we can yet replicate. So barring an accidental or deliberate collision, the Artifact may indeed last at least through the final days of our sun’s yellow dwarf stage.

There is also a good chance that Paglen pessimism about humans creating a permanent presence in space could be wrong. In as little as a century, orbital debris cleaners, scrap metal prospectors, and space archaeologists could be rummaging about in those special high Earth orbits in their respective efforts to create safe paths for new satellites, increase their wealth, or add one more piece of knowledge to the database of information about the first decades of the Space Age.

In the first two scenarios, The Last Pictures might become lost or destroyed, the finders possibly either failing to recognize the golden disk bolted to the side of EchoStar XVI as a message for them or simply lacking the interest to delve into the object. For the space archaeologist of the not too distant future, however, this discovery would not only be treasured but still largely understood, assuming the companion book and other records about those one hundred photographs and how they got into orbit remain accessible. Certainly in the first two cases people could just as plausibly grasp and appreciate the Artifact for what it is, even if only interpreting it as a monetary bonus at the behest of some eager historian or archaeologist.

While I can see EchoStar XVI and The Last Pictures making it through many millions of years in space intact if not unscarred if left alone, I have my doubts they will survive even before our yellow dwarf star goes big and red. There are at least several scenarios which Paglen, as best as I can tell, did not address that could easily take out a relatively small communications satellite and its even smaller golden disc.

One such scenario is where Earth and the rest of the solar system is turned into a Dyson Shell or something similar to this major astroengineering project. I can envision EchoStar XVI and its brethren end either as part of the construction material or ignored altogether and lost or destroyed in the building process.

While many claim that Dyson Shells will never be built for a variety of reasons, one cannot now argue with the fact that roughly one billion years before the Sun becomes a red giant, our Milky Way galaxy will be merging with its neighboring spiral stellar island, Andromeda. Astronomers say the odds of a collision between the suns of these two galaxies are quite slim, but also note that whatever is left of the solar system could be flung further out or even ejected into intergalactic space, affecting everything else floating our celestial neighborhood to an unknown degree. In addition, long before this event, our solar system will have more than a few close encounters with other stars in its own galaxy, which could disrupt any one of its circling worlds, including Earth and its retinue of satellites.

Speaking of satellites, Earth’s one very large natural satellite, the Moon, could one day greatly affect anything still existing in geosynchronous orbit. While the Moon is currently slowly drifting away from us, eventually tidal interactions between the two worlds will cause this to stop. As the Sun becomes a red giant, the Moon’s orbit will begin to decay because of increased drag. The Moon will find itself torn apart by tidal forces at the Roche Limit, 18,460 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. A huge ring of debris which was once our natural satellite will form, spreading its countless fragments all over the cislunar space. These rocky chunks would smash any artificial satellites that somehow managed to survive every other potential catastrophe.

As exciting and romantically appealing as it may be that EchoStar XVI and its Artifact will somehow outlast the vagaries of the Universe into endless time, I find it hard to fathom that either object will make it to the red giant era even if no human or large natural event ever touch the satellite before then. However, I think it is a valuable exercise to better estimate just how long the EchoStar XVI Artifact really could survive in a recognizable state. For those who want to preserve our knowledge and history (and therefore ourselves) for future beings and send messages to those remote eras, knowing how to do so is more than just an intellectual exercise or thought experiment. It will also make The Last Pictures more than “just” a contemporary art project.

Final thoughts

While researching back and forth between the two primary books on the EchoStar XVI Artifact and the Voyager Interstellar Records, The Last Pictures and Murmurs from Earth, respectively, I began to realize something the two projects had in common—perhaps the most subtle and meaningful message conceived by Paglen and his production team.

As exciting and romantically appealing as it may be that EchoStar XVI and its Artifact will somehow outlast the vagaries of the Universe into endless time, I find it hard to fathom that either object will make it to the red giant era.

Although the Voyager Record was primarily meant as a scientific message to the ETI who find the probes—the book Murmurs discusses repeatedly how most every photograph was chosen to pack in as much information about us and our world as possible—this very detail begins to blur as one looks at the images, especially those depicting people. The same goes for The Last Pictures: though they were meant to be artistic and carry social messages first, their science value in terms of relaying important information about us as biological creatures becomes obvious after a time. The Voyager Record team assumes a lot of understanding by the recipients, for they assume the investigators will be scientists or at least very scientifically curious. While this is certainly a possibility, there is also no guarantee. My musings had me wondering if science is just as subjective as Dr. Nunez says mathematics is.

The example from the Voyager Interstellar Record that first struck this thought in me is not the image of “licking, eating, and drinking” as one might imagine, but one showing a man standing atop a rock spire in the Alps. As the book caption says about this photograph: “If the recipients recognize the silhouetted human figure, they may guess that it was both difficult and seemingly pointless to scale this rock needle. The only point would be the accomplishment of doing it. If this message is communicated, it will tell extraterrestrials something very important about us.”

In Paglen’s art collection, there are two images involving an individual and an ocean. In one, waves are splashing against a standing woman with her back to the water. The other photograph shows a man surfing a huge curling wave of water. Both of these depictions could also be interpreted as humanity performing acts that are “difficult and seemingly pointless,” other than “the accomplishment of doing it.” Other scenes with large crowds of people and vehicles tended to magnify that blending and merging effect for me.

Both Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligences (METI) efforts also have numerous depictions of animals, with several showing different creatures interacting with various humans. The Voyager Record team chose their human-animal interaction images to depict how we use animals as companions, objects of scientific study, to help us accomplish tasks, and for food. Paglen’s animals are there mainly to show how often cruel and neglectful the members of his species are to the other residents of Earth.

While The Last Pictures does show an image of many rows of chickens in cages and a bizarre bit of art about a piano which uses cats for the musical notes, other images appear rather benign: A shark swimming in a huge aquarium tank, a child looking at an orca in a large swimming pool, and some longhorn cattle standing passively in a field. By contrast, I found some of the Voyager Record parallels capable of being interpreted as animal cruelty, though that was not their original intent: A human riding an elephant which is lifting tree logs with its trunk; a scientist measuring an alligator that is lying on its back (and appears to be dead); fishermen capturing large quantities of fish in their nets (there is a very similar photograph in The Last Pictures); a man frying fish on a grill. How will an ETI interpret these images, especially if they happen to resemble some of the animals depicted, or know fellow beings similar to them.

The feelings I had as I looked back and forth between the two collections are perhaps summed up by Katie Detwiler, an anthropology student who worked with The Last Pictures research team, who relayed the following in this quoted section from an article on the project in The Atlantic:

Such images don’t explain themselves; in some cases, they impart next to nothing without supplemental texts. Paglen insists that’s partly the point, an intent he made clear to his research assistants. “He was interested in images that were unstable or undermined their own truth claims,” said Katie Detwiler, and anthropology student at the New School, in New York, who was part of the research team. “Sometimes in my own search for images, it became really difficult to commit to any image over another,” she added. In deep time, it wasn’t “possible to communicate any meaning,” she said. “It could be a picture of a flower or a picture of a slaving ship. There’s no distinction at the endpoint that we’re thinking of.”

I was reminded of the time I visited an art museum and found the beautifully polished wooden floor I was walking upon just as much a work of art and craftsmanship as any of the paintings on the walls that were supposed to be the main reason I was at the museum in the first place. Was I wrong to find the straight lines and pleasant coloring of the wood planks beneath my feet just as impressive as the paintings hung just a few feet above them? This was not even a negative comment on the wall art, for they too were impressive in their art and craftsmanship. As I further recall, the whole building that housed both the paintings and the floor could be called a work of art, too.

“Why should cognitive scientists teaching at UC San Diego and curators from MIT’s List Visual Arts Center have access to the decision-making process of this project but not waitresses and truck drivers, let alone poets, painters, and filmmakers?”

So how will the recipients of the far future interpret the contents of the EchoStar XVI Artifact and the Voyager Records? Will they understand even a bit of what they are looking at, if they can look at the images in the same way we do at all? Having come a very long way in a sophisticated starship (we presume), will they focus their attentions on the spacecraft and find the information packages “seemingly pointless” as a Voyager Record team member said about the rock climber?

As Trevor Paglen replied when confronted by Dr. Nunez about putting scientific messages on the Artifact cover to assist the recipients in interpretation, perhaps all that can be done here is to do it whether the odds of understanding the artifacts are good or not: nothing is lost if they are meaningless, but they become a major benefit to the finders if they can aid in understanding who built these ancient vessels and sent them into deep space and time.

To add a final point (for now), I came across a review of The Last Pictures in my later research for this piece that really caught my attention. Many reviews of Paglen’s work were brief rehashes of what his project was about, or they betrayed how little the author understood both the significance of the art itself and the science behind it all (bemusement at the idea of aliens finding the satellite and its golden container with the images was a particular trend). They also tended to show the same select group of photographs repeatedly.

This particular review by Rob Sullivan of the Department of Geology at UCLA took Paglen to task on numerous levels, from his perceived hubris for calling them The Last Pictures (but would anything other than a dramatic, ultimate gesture have sold the project in the first place?) to his assumption that satellites in space would make great places to preserve items for a very long time.

Among Sullivan’s complaints were ones that are similar to those received by the makers of virtually every METI effort where a small and select number of people were involved, as quoted here:

For reasons that never seem to have warranted one moment of self-reflection, Paglen relies only on collaborators whose resumes would qualify them as the elite of the elite of America’s Creative Class. Paglen litters the book with references to well-known academics, as if the inclusion of such worthies would guarantee the probity of the project. And so a question of class and status arises. Why should cognitive scientists teaching at UC San Diego and curators from MIT’s List Visual Arts Center have access to the decision-making process of this project but not waitresses and truck drivers, let alone poets, painters, and filmmakers? This may sound like a facetious protest, but if this project is to be a record of all humanity intended for the ages, what exactly is the criterion for inclusion within its selectors? Is it only the highly educated who are allowed on board? Does one’s resume have to bulge with advanced degrees in order to have an opinion about the meaning of the planet and, therefore, the contents of its archive? There’s a miscarriage of democracy here, especially if the disc containing the archive actually does become the record of the present to the future.

While I agree with Sullivan’s complaint on one level, that if we are sending something out into deep space and time which represents the human species, then many people should have the chance to be part of that depiction of their own kind, there is something else to consider. Most METI projects, including and especially the Voyager Records, might never have happened at all without the efforts of a few key people. Sagan and his team tried hard to be international and multicultural in scope (see this essay for a bit of commentary by someone who felt that making the Voyager Record contents so “politically correct” and inclusive took away from their effectiveness—moreover, he also found them to be pessimistic in the sense that the creators seemed to be acting as if the human race might vanish shortly after their launch into space!) However, Sagan’s team also had be the ultimate, final say on items for the Record, at the risk of having the whole project vanish by a disapproving NASA. If I may go so far in saying so, if the Voyager probes had left Earth in 1977 without those LP records attached to their sides, it would be as if they were lacking a soul, in a sense; at the very least, a representation of the human essence, which you may call a soul, or whatever else you like.

Imagine not one last collection of pictures but thousands of works of art, messages, and information spread throughout space. Here would be a true democracy of ideas and representations.

When the New Horizons probe was being readied to become the first mission to flyby Pluto in 2015 (and only the fifth spacecraft to eventually leave the Sol system), that space vessel team purposely opted not to attach any kind of information package of the same significance of the Voyager Records or even the Pioneer Plaques. Instead they opted to treat the situation as if they were putting together a time capsule that some small town might bury in their local park for one hundred years.

Other than including some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930, every other item placed on New Horizons was meant merely as a memento to the team, with no effort to make them comprehensible to future beings who might find the probe one day drifting far beyond our solar system. This is what happens when not even a small group of people is allowed to make an effort to share something about ourselves on deep space missions. (This collectSPACE article has the details on what is riding out to Pluto and beyond and the rather sad story of how things came about.)

Despite the warnings above, we should have more METI projects that include large swaths of people from across the planet. They do not to be as elaborate as Paglen’s effort and, with private space businesses coming into their own, they should be able to happen on a more regular basis. Add the modern technology to store lots of information on a readable media and you can tell quite a lot about our species and our world.

Besides, if someone is unhappy with Paglen’s vision of humanity and how he expressed it, then by all means they should create their own expressions. Imagine not one last collection of pictures but thousands of works of art, messages, and information spread throughout space. Here would be a true democracy of ideas and representations, long-lasting monuments to our species at the shores of the cosmic ocean, as Carl Sagan would have said.

I really do believe these efforts have the ability to make people more aware of the wider Universe they live in and better appreciate how important it is to live for more than just today. If we expect to start venturing to the stars in earnest in the next century or so, we need future generations who will look past the planet of their birth to the vast galaxy of star systems beyond and the mere decades of existence given to an individual human and recognize the possibilities of living on for ages through the next generations.

A final word from Carl Sagan in the epilogue of Murmurs of Earth, appropriate to all messages sent by humanity into the void: “But one thing would be clear about us: No one sends a message on such a journey, to other worlds and beings, without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, they could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”