NASA Scientists Hope Singing Trees Could Help Us Reach Another Planet

By collecting data about their environment, trees can help tell the larger story of what is happening on our planet.

Patrick Holland / CNET

A spaceship in low earth orbit singing a duet with trees on Earth sounds like a scene from a bizarre sci-fi movie. But if a group of scientists and artists from NASA succeed, it will be a real collaboration that will last for 200 years.

The Team of Trees and Machines, a public art and science project called The Tree of Life, “connects Earth and space through a song, which is sent via radio waves between an orbiting spacecraft. and an unlikely technological component: a set of living trees that have been activated to function as large living antenna systems, ”reads a description of the inaugural project of the Space Song Foundation. It is a new non-profit organization dedicated to the design and manufacture of sustainable technologies supporting long-range space missions.

Digital sensors will detect changes in the environment of the trees, and custom software will translate these data points into sound frequencies that will be transmitted to the small distant spacecraft. In turn, the craft will return data on its own operational capability.

“As the light, water and temperature of the trees change, the melody, volume and actual sound of the song also change,” explains Julia christensen, president of the Space Song Foundation, a voluntary organization that sits at the intersection of science, art and design.

“In the short term, we hear changes in the song when day turns to night, when clouds pass over the tree, when the seasons change, and so on. Adds Christensen, chair of the studio art program at Oberlin College. “But in the very long term – decades or centuries – we will hear major global changes in climate and other changes on our planet.”

The Tree of Life began as part of an initiative to design a potential future spacecraft to reach Proxima B, an exoplanet 4.2 light-years away that appears to be located to host potential life. Traveling that distance would take about 6,300 years with current technology, which is why scientists are studying innovations that push the boundaries of technological longevity. Artists help them do it creatively. The Space Song Foundation has scientists from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab among its members, although it is not officially affiliated with NASA.

The artists involved in Space Song could have chosen virtually any object for the earthly piece of their experimental communication system. So why trees? Because they should continue to exist for many decades and can tell a larger story about life on our planet.

“The Tree of Life is taking steps to demonstrate our long-term approach to design and nature, on Earth and in outer space,” says Christensen, whose work explores consumerism and the complexities of e-waste on our planet and in the space, a growing concern as space exploration becomes more accessible.

But while the trees are ready for the limelight, the spacecraft at the center of the acoustic experience has yet to be built.

Steve Matousek, director of advanced concept at NASA’s JPL Innovation Lab, said the team will start testing cubesat-based prototypes next year. By operating (hopefully) continuously for 200 years, the spacecraft would push the constraints of technological obsolescence beyond the finite lifespans of the cellphones, tablets, and laptops that inhabit Earth today.

“The design has no moving parts and the electronics are only turned on 1% of the time,” says Matousek, who has worked on missions from Voyager to Juno to Mars Cube One. “Imagine if your car, computer or phone were to last 200 years. The simpler the spaceship, the better. ”

The Space Song Foundation is fundraise for the Tree of Life on Kickstarter, where the project grossed more than $ 12,200 towards its goal of $ 15,000, with two days remaining in the campaign. (Keep in mind that not all Kickstarter projects deliver on time or as promised.)

If all goes according to plan, the first two trees will begin to “sing” in public spaces in New York and Los Angeles, with speakers playing the duo in real time. Funds raised on Kickstarter will go towards the equipment needed to wire the two trees.

So what exactly does it look like when a spaceship and trees share the mic? Don’t expect something like David Bowie’s Space Oddity or The Beatles’ Across the Universe. The project audio sample is more like the constant scream you hear when testing the emergency broadcast system.

It’s just the basic trail, however. The song will be open source. Musicians can add to it, DJs can remix it, and scientists can use it to detect changes in data sets. It will belong to all of us.


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