The Billion-year Arch Library Riding Along with Elon Musk’s Tesla in Space

Three of the first 5 Arch Libraries ever made. Credit: The Arch Mission Foundation.

All eyes were glued on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy’s successful launch this past Tuesday. Not only because it demonstrated SpaceX’s new and astonishing space launch capability, but because of the idiosyncratic, even baffling cargo: one of Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadsters, complete with “Starman”, its spacesuit-wearing dummy passenger.

On Tuesday night, we may have learned a new reason why Starman and the Roadster were on the Falcon Heavy.

Like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the Roadster is also a delivery vehicle, carrying a fused-quartz disc from the Arch Mission Foundation. The news was revealed just before launch, and on Tuesday night, the Foundation’s founder, Nova Spivack, finally explained exactly what they were up to in a lengthy Medium post.

The Arch Mission—whose mission is nothing less than to “backup our civilization for eternity in a manner that will make it impossible to ever be lost”—plans to encode all human knowledge and culture on ultra-long-lasting quartz discs. Using these “Arch Libraries”, the Foundation intends to seed them throughout the solar system in such numbers that no single entity could possibly destroy or hoard them all. Human knowledge will have become an indefinite, permanent resource.

The disc uses a new technology called 5D optical storage, which is capable of holding over 350 terabytes of coded information on disc-shaped fused quartz. Developed by Dr. Peter Kansky and his team at the U.K.’s University of Southampton, the discs were chosen by the Foundation to serve as their “Arch libraries” for their small size and astonishing longevity: the discs are theoretically capable of retaining data for a span of time measured in billions of years.

So the possible true reason for the Starman and the Roadster’s interplanetary voyage?

This Arch library will orbit the Sun for at least millions of years alongside Elon’s 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.

This puts an intriguing twist on the choice of the Roadster, suggesting that it was not—as critics contended—simply a vanity project by a billionaire. Instead, its bizarreness becomes an invitation. SpaceX, Musk, and Arch are hoping that the spectacle of a dummy in a spacesuit driving a car through space will be an irresistible draw to any spacefaring civilization that happens to spot it. Once they find it, they’ll find Arch’s library. And once they know about the libraries’ existence, they’ll be compelled to seek out the rest of this civilizational backup.

What they’ll find in this first Arch library is an encoded digital copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. It’s a simple payload, but important to Arch, and Spivack explains why.

“Asimov’s Foundation Series was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation, many years ago when we first conceived of this project. It is a metaphor for what we hope this can become, and it is the perfect cornerstone as our mission begins”

“If you are not familiar, Asimov’s Foundation Series is important for its symbolism. The series’ protagonist Hari Seldon endeavors to preserve and expand upon all human culture and knowledge through a 30,000 year period of turmoil. We felt this was a very fitting first payload to include in the Arch.”Like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the Roadster is also a delivery vehicle, carrying a fused-quartz disc, or Arch Library, from the Arch Mission Foundation.

It’s a fitting choice, though some are already suggesting possible alternatives.

Arch has four fixed missions planned. The already-mentioned Solar mission, which began on Tuesday, will seed the solar system with thousands of these discs, placed in both heliocentric orbit and in orbit around all the other planets in the solar system. The Earth Mission will scatter permanently-encoded information all across the world. The Lunar Mission, slated for 2020, will be placing a much larger cache of information on the surface of the Moon. The most ambitious is 2030’s Mars mission: the Foundation is aiming to create a “massive dataset”, including a backup of a large portion of the Internet, to serve as a support tool for any future Martian settlements.

When contacted by SpaceQ, Arch’s Doug Freeman, speaking on behalf of Spivack. added that their overall mission won’t be limited to these specific choices, saying “every launch that delivers anything into space for a long-term period of time is welcome to carry an Arch”.

Arch has already assembled an impressive array of allies and supporters, including the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, EES Ventures, Space for Humanity, Catalog DNA, and SpaceChain—as well as academics and industry players like Prof. Dan Kammen, Prof. Michael Paul, Space-focused angel investors Jeff Rich and Dylan Taylor, and Stephen Wolfram, whose blog post on “restarting civilization” helped catalyze the project, among many others. After their dramatic reveal, The Foundation—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit—is looking to recruit additional supporters and solidify their funding. According to Freeman, they’re “getting lots of donations from all sorts of people”.

Meanwhile, Musk revealed on Twitter that Starman, his Roadster, and the Library are on their way to the asteroid belt, after having slightly missed their intended near-Mars orbital path. A car, a dummy, and a spacesuit: floating through space, carrying their cargo of quartz, and blaring Bowie.

MDA

About Craig Bamford

Craig Bamford
Craig is a graduate of Carleton's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, focused on conflict studies. Naturally, this means he writes on the Internet about gaming, tech, and speculative fiction. He lives in Toronto.