NASA beams Beatles into deep space

Contributed by
Feb 1, 2008

On February 4th, NASA will use the Deep Space Network -- a series of large radio antennas used to monitor probes to other planets -- to beam the Beatles song "Across the Universe" to the star Polaris.

This is a publicity stunt designed to celebrate two anniversaries: NASA's 50th this year, and the 40th of the recording of the song by the Liverpudlian quartet. I'm fairly ambivalent about such things; it's not a big deal, doesn't cost much, NASA wouldn't do it if it put any missions at risk. While I won't stand on my chair and cheer for this, it does raise awareness of NASA. It's also kinda cute.

They could, however, have picked a better star. Polaris is almost certainly devoid of planets. It is an older star called a supergiant: it has stopped fusing hydrogen in its core, and has expanded outward to be a vast, bloated, incredibly luminous beacon. If it had any planets once they are probably either vaporized -- eaten by the star as it expanded -- or fried beyond recognition as the star heated up. It also has a companion star that is a bit hotter and more massive than the Sun which orbits the supergiant just a couple of billion kilometers out. This makes it really unlikely that any planets could be in that system; the dance of gravity would make things a mess there. There are lots of nearby stars with planets that would have made a better choice, and one close to 40 light years away would have made even more sense (since it's been 40 years since the song was recorded).

Still, everyone has heard of Polaris, and since it's fraught with misconceptions, maybe this will raise awareness not just of NASA and the Beatles, but of an important star, too.

Also, Carolyn Porco is a huge Beatles fan. I imagine this'll make her pretty happy.

That's Carolyn on the right, in white. I'm almost positive the redheaded man is my friend Kevin Grazier... and some of you may be familiar with his work as well. Hmmm... I have another thought about using the Deep Space Network for communication...

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