A project led by a group of NASA scientists that brings art and science together called The Tree of Life wants to connect the Earth and space through a song that will last two centuries. And this unusual duet will be transmitted through radio waves between a spacecraft in low Earth orbit and a collection of trees that have been rigged to function as a living antenna system.
It sounds straight out of a science fiction movie, and it gets more interesting the more you learn about it. In fact, the project began as part of a larger effort to design a potential future spacecraft capable of reaching Proxima B, an exoplanet located 4.2 light-years away. This exoplanet is special in that its temperature is almost like Earth — mild enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, suggesting it could harbor life. However, with our current technology, reaching Proxima B would take us an estimated 6,300 years, so, as reported by CNET, scientists are seeking improvements that push the boundaries of technological lifespan.
The idea is this: the trees will be equipped with digital sensors which will detect changes in their surroundings. Then, custom software will convert those data points into sound frequencies that will be transmitted to the spacecraft. The vessel will next transmit information regarding its own operational capability.
“As the light, water and temperature at the tree change, so does the tune, the volume, and the actual sound of the song,” explained Julia Christensen, president of the Space Song Foundation, which stands at the intersection of science, art, and design, per CNET. “In the short term, we hear shifts in the song as day turns to night, as clouds pass over the tree, as seasons change, etc. But over the very long term — decades or centuries — we will hear major global shifts in climate and other changes on our planet.”
While the names behind the project could pick virtually any object for the experimental communication system, they decided on trees since they will continue to exist for many decades, and tell a more encompassing story about life on Earth.
The spacecraft at the heart of the experiment, which is expected to run continuously for 200 years, has yet to be built; however, according to Steve Matousek, advanced concept manager at NASA JPL’s Innovation Lab, the team will begin testing prototypes based on cubesats within next year. And if all goes as planned, the first two trees will start signing their songs in New York and Los Angeles.