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Why College Students Are Sending a Time Capsule to Mars

Emily Briere leads a student effort to deliver a “broad and full snapshot of Earth” to the red planet by satellite.

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This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Emily Briere is planning a mission to Mars. The 23-year-old aerospace engineering student aims to get a time capsule—a small satellite loaded with messages from Earth—to the red planet. As mission director of Time Capsule to Mars, she’s recruited students from colleges across the United States to meet a goal she describes as “ambitious, but just within reach.”

Voyager carried records designed to communicate with aliens. Whom are you trying to reach?

The time capsule is a challenge for humans to get out there and colonize Mars. One day, when we’re there, it’ll be the kind of thing that’s put in the National Geographic Museum or the Smithsonian to document how far we’ve come.

How are you building the time capsule?

It’ll be a low-cost mission using a CubeSat satellite the size of two cereal boxes. You have to be a student to do hands-on work on the project. We’re building different subsystems at different universities. For example, a lab at MIT is doing ion electric-based propulsion, and a lab at Stanford is testing space environments. We would be the secondary payload of some big scientific mission. We’re saying we’ll launch in the next three to five years, but it’s really a matter of funding. If everything were to go perfectly, we could launch sooner.

What will the time capsule contain?

Digital photos, videos, audio uploaded by people all around the world. We want the content of the capsule to provide a very broad and full snapshot of Earth as it is today. We’re on this mission to Mars together as humanity, rather than as a country or as an individual company.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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