A Tesla Roadster wasn’t the only thing Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent into orbit last week

Elon Musk’s space-bound Tesla Roadster may have grabbed headlines, but SpaceX tucked away another, smaller payload during last week’s Falcon Heavy launch.

A Tesla Roadster wasn’t the only thing Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent into orbit last week

Stowed inside the Roadster is a tiny storage device, designed to withstand the conditions of space for billions of years. It’s called an Arch (pronounced ‘ark’) library, is roughly the size of a coin, and is currently hurtling in an elliptical orbit around our Sun.

The miniature library looks like a shrunken DVD, created using a technique dubbed “5D data storage” that involves etching quartz using a femotosecond laser. This approach, pioneered by Dr Peter Kazansky from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre, is being developed to store 360 Terabytes of data within the next decade.

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The current iterations of Arch libraries are a test of this future potential, only holding the three volumes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. The first two of these data crystals have been given to Elon Musk – one held in his personal library, and one in his orbiting Tesla Roadster.

“The Roadster will likely be the oddest object in the solar system, and thus is the perfect place to put an Arch library so that it can be noticed and retrieved in the distant future,” writes co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, Nova Spivack.

Library of humanity

Spivack explains that the choice of Asimov’s science-fiction trilogy is symbolic, given that protagonist of those novels is dedicated to preserving human culture and knowledge in the face of an impending 30,000-year dark age.

The Arch missions wants to eventually create an orbiting compendium of human knowledge (“Think of it as a ring of knowledge around the sun,” writes Spivack) as well as a “lunar library” to be delivered to the surface of the moon by 2020. The idea is to decentralise human knowledge to as many locations as possible – a bit like scattering dandelion seeds across the galaxy.

Future Arch libraries may use other technologies, as well as the nascent “5D data storage” in quartz. Spivack mentions the use of non-living DNA. He doesn’t give anything in the way of specifics, although it’s worth noting that last year a team at Harvard Medical School managed to splice data from a GIF file in a bacteria’s genome.

The project is reminiscent of the Voyager Golden Record, encoded with images, music and mathematical details about everything from the Solar System to human DNA. There is an important difference, however. The Voyager record was a carefully balanced attempt on the part of NASA to capture humanity as a whole. The curatorial choices behind future time capsules, sent into space by billionaires, may not be held up to the same levels of scrutiny.

What gets chosen to be in this scattered library, and what gets left behind?

Image credit: Arch Mission Foundation

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