Fifty thousand years from now– if all goes according to plan– a
bright streak will smudge the sky as a man-made meteor plunges into the
Earth’s atmosphere. The burnoff of the object’s thermal layer during
re-entry should illuminate the sky with bright artificial auroras, and
despite its dramatic entrance, its payload will hopefully survive the
rough landing unscathed.

The spherical container is a satellite, one
which will soon be placed into a leisurely orbit that will allow it to
circle the Earth for fifty millennia before finally sinking back into
the atmosphere. The project is supported by UNESCO– the science and
education arm of the UN– and the European Space Agency. It is called
KEO, and it’s certainly one of the more creative and complex efforts to
cast a message-in-a-bottle into the sea of time.

The satellite’s design, which lacks any on-board propulsion or
communication equipment, was conceived in 1994 by a French scientist
and artist named Jean-Marc Philippe. The eighty-centimeter-wide sphere
is intended to be outfitted with a pair of long wings which are
attached using memory alloys that change their shape according to
temperature. This will allow the satellite to automatically spread its
wings when exposed to sunlight, and fold them in while in the Earth’s
shadow, however the wings serve no useful purpose… they are purely

design of the sphere itself is a bit more practical, with a number of
features included to protect KEO’s payload from the harsh environment
of space and the brutal beating of atmospheric re-entry. It is
protected by a number of nested shields: An outermost layer of aluminum
to prevent oxidation, a titanium and tungsten shield to protect against
damage from cosmic rays, a layer to protect against micro-meteorites
and debris, a thermal shield to prevent the payload from burning up
during its fiery descent, and the innermost shield which utilizes
metallic sponge material encased in titanium to protect against the
shock of landing. The satellite is also designed to be buoyant in the
event that it lands in water.

If the satellite survives its
launch, its long stay in space, its re-entry, and its landing, AND if
there are intelligent inhabitants of this planet who manage to find KEO
and open its titanium shell, what they will find inside is a compact
but information-rich time capsule. The innermost sphere will hold
photographs representing all cultures of people; an artificial diamond
which encases a drop of human blood along with tiny samples of sea
water, air, and soil; and an astronomical clock based on the positions
of nearby pulsars which can be used to determine when the satellite was

Also inside will be something which will likely be
strange to the visual organs of its discoverers: a set of
specially-made glass DVDs, along with symbol-based instruction on how
to build a DVD reader. Upon these DVDs will be encoded a contemporary
"Library of Alexandria"– an encyclopedic compendium of current human
knowledge– and millions of personalized messages currently being
collected from individuals all over the world.

KEO’s makers
decided on its transit time based on the fact that it has been 50,000
years since mankind first began drawing on cave walls, which represents
the earliest forms of symbolic expression. Sending the time capsule
forward an equal number of years seemed fitting to its designers,
perhaps because it the nature of the human ego to think of one’s own
time as the midpoint of history. If your fancy is tickled by the notion
of contributing a message to be included on KEO, the project’s website
is collecting submissions until the end of 2006. All
KEO Re-entry Aurora
members of humanity are invited to send in their contributions, and
though the messages are uncensored, they are limited to 6,000
characters of text. Before KEO is launched in 2007 or 2008 (barring any
further delays), all submissions will be anonymized and made available
for free online.

It seems that an obscene amount of luck
will be necessary to deliver the contents of KEO to future souls who
can reach its bounty and understand what they have found, but it’s best
to mark your calendars for 52,007 A.D. just in case… if KEO does arrive
on schedule, it should be quite a sight.

Alan Bellows