They are calling the project the “Tree of Life”.
in a spaceshipSinging a duet under the trees on Earth sounds like a scene from a bizarre science fiction movie. But if a group of NASA scientists and artists have their way, it will be a real-life collaboration lasting 200 years.
The team of Trees and Machines, a public art/science project called The Tree of Life, “connects Earth and outer space through a song that communicates through radio waves between an orbiting spacecraft and an unlikely technological component.” is sent from: a set of living trees that have been activated to operate as large, living antenna systems,” reads the inaugural project description from the Space Song Foundation. It is a newly formed non-profit dedicated to the design and manufacture of sustainable technology to support long-range space missions.
Digital sensors would alter the trees’ environment, and custom software would translate those data points into sound frequencies that beam down small, distant spacecraft. In return, the craft will back up data about its operational capability.
Julia Christensen, president of the Space Song Foundation, says, “Just as the light, water and temperature on the trees change, so do the melody, volume and the actual sound of the song.” Design.
“In the short term, we hear changes in song as day turns into night, as clouds pass over trees, as the seasons change, etc.,” says Christensen, president of the studio arts program at Oberlin College. “But over a very long period of time – decades or centuries – we will hear major global changes in climate and other changes on our planet.”
Tree of Life began as part of an initiative to guide future spacecraft to reach Proxima b, an exoplanet 4.2 light-years away that appears to be located to host potential life. Traveling that distance with current technology would take an estimated 6,300 years, which is why scientists are seeing innovations that push the boundaries of technological longevity. Artists are helping them do so creatively.
Artists associated with the Space Song Foundation could choose virtually any object for their terrestrial piece of experimental communication systems. So why the tree? Because they needed Has existed for many decades and can tell a great story about life on our planet.
“Tree of Life takes a step toward showcasing our long-term approach to design and nature on Earth and outer space,” says Christensen, whose work explores the complexities of consumerism and 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 heart of the acoustic experiment has yet to be built.
Steve Matousek, advanced concepts manager for NASA JPL’s Innovation Lab, says the team will begin testing prototypes based on the CubeSat next year. (hopefully) operating continuously for 200 years, the spacecraft will push the barriers of technological obsolescence beyond the limited lifetimes of the cellphones, tablets and laptops that populate Earth today.
“There are no moving parts in the design, and the electronics are only on 1% of the time,” says Matusek, who has worked on missions from Voyager to Juno to Mars Cube One. “Imagine that your car, or your computer, or your phone, needs to last for 200 years. The simpler the spacecraft, the better.”
The Space Song Foundation is raising money for Tree of Life on Kickstarter, where the project has raised more than $11,500 toward its $15,000 goal, with three days left in 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 “singing” in public spaces in New York and Los Angeles, with speakers broadcasting the duet in real time. Funds raised on Kickstarter will go toward the equipment needed to wire the two trees.
So what, exactly, is it like when a spaceship and tree share a mic? Don’t expect anything like David Bowie’s Space Oddity or The Beatles Across the Universe. The sample audio for the project sounds like the steady scream you hear during tests of an emergency broadcast system.
However this is just the baseline track. The song will be open source. Musicians can add to it, DJs can remix it, and scientists can use it to detect changes in a data set. It will be for all of us.