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From Ancient Inuit Maps to Poetry, Researchers Send Art to the Moon

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One of the platinum-engraved sapphire disks illustrating Earth’s biodiversity that will be housed in the Earth Chamber, designed by Mark Baskinger with Matt Zywica, Maggie Banks, Christie Chong, Bettina Chou, Adella Guo, Natalie Harmon, Deborah Lee, Deniz Sokullu, Carolyn Zhou. (all images courtesy Moon Arts Project)

A capsule filled with art and artifacts is headed to the moon at the start of next year, where it will remain indefinitely as a celebration of the human capacity for creativity. Designed by an international team of artists, scientists, and engineers, the less-than-a-foot tall object is hitching a ride on a rover engineered by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute that’s competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. If the journey proves successful, the MoonArk will land approximately 300 works in space, from ancient maps to poems to digital art.

Blending art, design, and engineering, the Moon Arts Project is nearing completion of its production phase and is set to be fully assembled in April, with space-readiness testing occurring in June. Only prior to launch will the team reveal all the objects included, although it has started to share a few of MoonArk’s mystery contents.

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“Moon Composite”: prototypes of the four titanium stanchions that connect sapphire disks in each chamber of the Moon Ark, created by Mark Rooker. (click to enlarge)

“There’s no Picassos or anything like that,” Mark Baskinger, a principal investigator of the project and an associate professor in CMU’s School of Design, told Hyperallergic. “It’s not really like an art history book, and I think that’s one of the misperceptions — that we’ve taken all of art history and condensed it down into this sculpture, and we’re sending it to the moon.

“That’s not really the intention,” he continued. “The narrative of it, as the project’s evolved, is more a celebration of human creativity and creative capacity.”

Of course, with the price of space travel — as of press time — at $80,000 per pound of payload, MoonArk will largely hold representations of artworks so it is nearly weightless, although it will also contain a number of physical objects. Everything, however, remains visual; nothing exists in data form. To accomplish this, the team had professional engravers laser-etch the various visuals in platinum on sapphire discs, resulting in delicate-looking objects that are works of art in their own right. Each slightly larger than a quarter, the discs are housed in pairs, in four chambers that measure two inches in height and in diameter. The chambers will fit together like a totem pole connected by metal wires, with the entire structure weighing a total of just six ounces.

In addition to considering how to create something conducive to the elements of space travel and weathering, MoonArk’s team focused on a design that represented humanity’s relationship to the cosmos. Each chamber represents a theme — Earth, Metasphere, Moon, and Ether — that when stacked, also relays the physical layering of our world. The metal wires that attach the discs together, designed by metalsmith and associate professor Mark Rooker, also represent some relationship between the earth and the moon, each bent to create different shapes.

Serving as the base of the totem pole, the Earth chamber provides a glimpse of our biodiversity. Engraved on the discs are illustrations of animals and plants. It also contains bits of organic material, from rock samples to phytoplankton; water from the five oceans to DNA from certain animals. Above it, the Metasphere chamber focuses on the human capacity for communication. Ancient Inuit maps carved from wood, found in Greenland National Museum’s national archives, are etched with precision on a sapphire disc along with works by the artist Lori Hepner. Hepner has contributed data visualizations, from landscapes showing the state of the world’s ice sheets to a converted tweet, represented by a colorful pattern created from its character set. Other works in the Metasphere chamber include nano art sculptures and two murals by photographer Dylan Vitone of all the images he took with his phone and texted his wife over a number of years — “a panoramic view of a very human event,” Baskinger said.

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3-D rendering of the Earth Chamber in full by Zach Schwemler, designed by the Moon Arts Group

Human expression appears in the more ancient form of writing in the Moon chamber, which stands as a sort of Rosetta stone. Its discs feature nano engravings of over 113 poems about the moon, collected from various cultures and across history — and then translated into multiple languages. Some are well-known, Baskinger hinted, while others were written specifically for Moon Arts Project, such as a new “moon ballet.” The team has recorded its choreography and musical compositions in a specific, innovative way so that future moon explorers may read or even hear the performance.

Ether, the topmost chamber, focuses on spirituality and the metaphysical — objects that grapple with our understanding beyond the boundaries of our universe. Baskinger only shared that it features pieces by environmental artist Lowry Burgess, whose 1989 “Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture” was the first artwork taken into space by NASA on a shuttle. Burgess is also a leading figure of the project; he launched an international open call for artworks six years ago, although the project has since evolved greatly from that initial stage.

When the CMU rover — dubbed “Andy” after the university’s founder — eventually grounds itself on the rugged surface of the moon, it will have to travel 500 meters and successively transmit HD images and videos back to earth, as per the Google Lunar XPRIZE’s rules. But upon its distribution of the MoonArk, it will also be sending documents to no one in particular. The four chambers will rest at different locations, together representing a poetic portrait of the earth, designed to be hand-sized and ready to be unscrewed by the next adventurers of the cosmos.

“We don’t expect aliens to discover this,” Baskinger said. “The intention is that we go back to the moon long after we’ve forgotten about this mission and the Google XPRIZE, and we find these things. Much like the way we try to piece together the pyramids and the dunes from antiquity that we find … there are breadcrumbs here, but there’s no manual for how to read it. It would be foolish for us to try to do that. We wrote it in our language today, and if we can still read English in the future — or Mandarin — that’s great. If not, that’s okay too.”

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A narrative sketch explaining the process of delivery of Moon Arts Ark to the Moon, drawn by Mark Baskinger (click to enlarge)
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3-D rendering of the Ether Chamber in full by Zach Schwemler, designed by the Moon Arts Group
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3-D rendering of the Metasphere Chamber in full by Zach Schwemler, designed by the Moon Arts Group
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3-D rendering of the Moon Chamber in full by Zach Schwemler, designed by the Moon Arts Group
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Dylan Vitone, “Texts to Elaine,” one of the murals in the Metasphere Chamber (click to enlarge)
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The Moon Arts team at work
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The Moon Arts team at work
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The Moon Arts team at work
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The Moon Arts team at work
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