This is a guest post by Sheri Wells-Jensen, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation at the Kluge Center. Wells-Jensen is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. A linguist with research interests in phonetics, braille, language creation, and disability studies, her early work on the potential for non-physically mediated language acquisition (by AI or other non-human beings) led to an ongoing interest in ethical issues related to space exploration, as well as disability issues in space travel. Her current research centers on increasing access for people with disabilities in space.
In October 2024, a 229-foot-tall Falcon Heavy Rocket will fling NASA’s largest-ever planetary probe into space. At launch, with its belly full of fuel, the Europa Clipper will weigh in at 13,000 pounds. It stands 16 feet tall, and when its solar panels are unfurled, it will be more than 100 feet wide!
This big fellow will zoom through 1.8 billion miles of open space and drop neatly into orbit around Jupiter in April, 2030. From there, it will spend some time adjusting its position and then begin systematic observations of Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon.
Europa is a mystery. Its surface is covered with ice — beneath which, we believe, is an immense ocean, and it is that hidden ocean that calls to us.
The Europa Clipper will conduct a series of observations and analyses as it passes by. It will gaze at Europa using visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light, measure its magnetic field, sniff at its chemicals, tap it with radar, and reach out to sense slight changes in its gravity as it spins through space. All of this is designed to answer one simple question: Could this icy little moon support life? Are the conditions right?
This may be a straightforward scientific question, but the Europa Clipper carries more than straightforward scientific instruments.
On one side of the probe, there is a little hatch. It’s an access panel that you could open and stick your arm through in order to adjust key components, should anything need adjusting before launch. Tucked safely away on the inside of that hatch cover is a microchip which will carry the names of millions of people from Earth who chose to sign on. You can see a map of where the names came from and add your own here.
The inside of the hatch cover also bears an engraving of a poem ”In Praise of Mystery,” by US Poet Laureate Ada Limón. In part, it says this: “We, too, are made of wonders, of great and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds, of a need to call out through the dark.”
When I attended the Library of Congress event where this poem was read to the public for the first time, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden asked me why we do this. Why do we send these “extra things”, like poems and lists of names, on scientific missions to space? Such additions complicate the already complex process of getting the probe launched, and they increase the cost. So why do we bother?
At its heart, this mission is more than a set of objective observations and analyses. With the Clipper probe as our hands and our senses, we are doing something profoundly human. This is life reaching for the scent of life. It’s a deeply significant event, and every significant human event begins with a greeting and with an offering of names.
There are around seven thousand languages spoken or signed on Earth today. Each has basic words for concepts and objects like moon, sun, and water, and every language has dozens of words for different kinds of greetings — ways of saying “hello” and “this is why we’re here” and “this is my name.” Dr. Hayden did exactly this when she opened that evening’s event: She greeted the people in attendance, told everyone why we had gathered, and offered them her name. It was necessary.
We send greetings into space because it is our nature. Greetings are nestled deeply into the essence of who we are. We greet out of respect, out of a longing for connection, and out of a need to offer our names and to be known.
The Europa Clipper carries our greetings simply because it is from us. This is humanity, as our poet laureate says, calling out through the dark.