By collecting data about their environment, trees can help tell the fuller story of what is going on on our planet.
Patrick Holland / CNET
A spaceship in near-earth orbit singing a duet with trees on earth sounds like a scene from a bizarre science fiction film. But if a group of NASA scientists and artists have their way, it will be two centuries of real collaboration.
The Team of Trees and Machines, a public arts / science project called The Tree of Life, “connects earth and space through a song broadcast over radio waves between an orbiting spaceship and an unlikely technological component: a series of living trees.” that have been activated to function as large, living antenna systems, “reads a description of the start-up project of the Space Song Foundation. This is a newly formed non-profit organization dedicated to the development and manufacture of sustainable technologies that support long-range space missions.
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Digital sensors detect changes in the surroundings of the trees, and custom software translates these data points into sound frequencies that are transmitted to the small, distant spacecraft. In return, the vehicle sends back data about its own operating capacity.
“When the light, water and temperature on the tree change, the melody, volume and the actual sound of the song also change,” says Julia Christensen, President of the Space Song Foundation, which stands at the interface of science and art and design.
“In the short term, we hear changes in the song as day turns to night, when clouds drift over trees, the seasons change, and so on,” added Christensen, chairman of the studio arts program at Oberlin College. “But in the very long term – decades or centuries – we will hear great global climate changes and other changes on our planet.”
The Tree of Life was created as part of an initiative to develop a potential future spacecraft to reach Proxima B, an exoplanet 4.2 light years away.
The Tree of Life began as part of an initiative to develop a potential future spacecraft to reach Proxima B, an exoplanet 4.2 light-years away that is home to potential life. Covering this distance would take an estimated 6,300 years with current technology, which is why scientists are looking for innovations that push the limits of technical longevity. Artists help them be creative.
Artists involved in the Space Song Foundation could have chosen virtually any object for the terrestrial slice of their experimental communication system. So why trees? Because they (should) exist for many more decades and can tell a bigger story about life on our planet.
“The Tree of Life is taking steps to demonstrate our long-term approach to design and nature on earth and in space,” says Christensen, whose work examines the use and complexities of e-waste on our planet and in space increasing concerns as the Space exploration is becoming more accessible.
But while trees are ready for the spotlight, the spacecraft at the center of the acoustic experiment has yet to be built.
Steve Matousek, Advanced Concept Manager at NASA JPL’s Innovation Lab, says the team will begin testing prototypes based on Cubesats next year. By (hopefully) uninterrupted operation for 200 years, the spacecraft would push the limitations of technological obsolescence beyond the limited lifespan of the cell phones, tablets, and laptops that populate the earth today.
“The design has no moving parts and the electronics are only active 1% of the time,” says Matousek, who has worked on missions from Voyager to Juno to MarCo. “Imagine if your car, computer or phone had to last 200 years. The simpler the space probe, the better. ”
The Space Song Foundation is currently raising funds for the Tree of Life on Kickstarter, where the project raised more than $ 11,500 towards its $ 15,000 goal, with the campaign still running for three days. (Keep in mind that not all Kickstarter projects are delivered on time or as promised.)
If everything goes according to plan, the first two trees in public spaces in New York and Los Angeles will “sing” with speakers broadcasting the duet in real time. The funds raised on Kickstarter will be used for the equipment needed to wire the two trees.
So how exactly does it sound when a spacecraft and trees share the microphone? Don’t expect anything like David Bowie’s Space Oddity or Across the Universe of the Beatles. Audio samples for the project sound more like the steady screeching you hear while testing the 911.
However, that’s just the baseline. The song will be open source. Musicians can add to it, DJs can remix it, and scientists can use it to spot shifts in data sets. It will be ours all.