From U.S. Patent # 8,094,083 B1 (January 10, 2012)

The Tree of Life is a collaboration between artist Julia Christensen, and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Innovation Foundry. The mission consists of a cubesat specifically designed to operate in low-Earth orbit for 200 years, transcending contemporary cycles of technological obsolescence. The cubesat will transmit data about its operational conditions to Earth. The Tree of Life team will augment a set of trees around the planet to act as living terrestrial antennae, by harnessing the dielectric properties of the live trees. The team is selecting trees expected to live for 200 years––again, well beyond the short cycles of technological obsolescence prevalent in the 21st century. Sensors on the trees will collect a 200-year data set about their “operational conditions” as well: the trees’ response to water, light, their ecosystem, and surrounding climate. The data sent to and from the trees and cubesat will be translated to sonic frequencies, via custom data sonification software, so that ultimately, the trees and the cubesat will sing to each other for 200 years.

 

The Tree of Life project began when artist Julia Christensen met JPL scientist Dr. Anthony Freeman through her fellowship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Tech Lab. For several years, Christensen’s work has investigated what she calls “upgrade culture”––the perceived, relentless need to upgrade our technology to remain relevant. Dr. Freeman was involved in a series of studies with JPL’s A-Team, developing a spacecraft concept that faces the challenge of obsolescence during its own operational lifetime: a spacecraft bound for Proxima B, an exo-planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.2 light years away. The spacecraft concept would launch in the year 2069 (a nod to the 100-year anniversary of the Apollo mission), and would reach 1/10 the speed of light. At this speed, the spacecraft would arrive at Proxima B roughly 42 years later. The spacecraft concept would necessarily need to autonomously transform––or “upgrade”––itself throughout the mission to survive the interstellar journey. It would also have to upgrade itself to remain relevant to life on Earth when it arrives at its destination, because our technology will not cease to progress during the mission.

 

After several conversations, Dr. Freeman invited Christensen to envision an art project to be implemented in the Proxima B spacecraft concept, and an A-Team study was initiated to develop her ideas with input from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives: scientists with expertise in exo-planetary science, robotics, machine learning, aerospace engineering, etc.  Several A-Team meetings followed, and they identified the need to launch an initial mission––now––that would test the very longevity of materials in space, and our long-lived terrestrial communications systems.

 

The Tree of Life mission is designed to address those questions. The longevity of technology is one of the most critical––and yet, elusive––challenges of initiating a long-term interstellar mission; The Tree of Life is an initial step towards developing the future mission to Proxima B. As The Tree of Life mission unfolds, so will a song that tells a story about changes in life on Earth, and our technology in space––this song inherently tells a story about human life, as well. This song of the trees and the cubesat will be inscribed on the future Proxima B mission, sending a new “Golden Record” into the cosmos––this time, from the perspective of the trees that support us, and the technology we build.

Christensen’s work on The Tree of LIfe is supported by: