What art has to do with NASA? A lot actually
By Kinjal Trivedi
Artist Julia Christensen has partnered with scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has been working with scientists who are trying to send a craft to conduct a reconnaissance fly-by there. It will carry Christensen’s artwork, The Tree of Life, and beam it down to whatever little aliens might be there.
The artist, who is chair of the studio art department at Ohio’s Oberlin College, came to work with NASA scientist Anthony Freeman under the fellowship organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology lab. Freeman is concerned with upgrading culture in his own field, and is, with a team of scientists and engineers, working to design a craft that could travel to Proxima b.
Discovered in 2016, the closest known planet to our solar system rests in the “Goldilocks zone” from its own sun, meaning Proxima b might have a temperate enough climate to be habitable.
“If this spacecraft could travel at a 10th of the speed of light, it would take 42 years to reach its destination,” said Christensen, adding that we’re not quite there in terms of speed yet. “So we have 40 years until we arrive at the technology to go that fast. How do we develop technology now that will function 100 years into the future? What kind of data is it going to send back to us in 2111?”
The Tree of Life riffs on the Golden Record, which NASA sent out with Voyager in 1977, an actual album etched with music, greetings in various languages, and photos of life on Earth, therefore alien life forms to find. But rather than the songs of humans, this project will bear the songs of trees.
Christensen and the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working on building a toaster-size, near-Earth satellite (a device otherwise known as a CubeSat) that can remain functional for 200 years, and that will gather information from trees outfitted with devices allowing them to communicate with the satellite. They hope to develop the device within the next few years, with a budget of under $1 million.
“We often talk about how there’s a place where science and art meet on the plane of existential questions,” she says. “When you get to the point of trying to imagine how humanity can explore the next star system over, you get to imaginative questions. It’s a very visionary mood. This has been one of the most inspiring and expansive projects of my life,” said Christensen.