(Illustration: Johannes Plenio/Unsplash)

Take your gaze out beyond Earth, out to our moon, or to Mars, or to Venus. Place yourself behind the instruments of the Perseverance Rover, or fly through Europa’s watery plumes. Perhaps you might begin to wonder what kinds of life forms, what kinds of unseen patterns, crop up in these alien places. Perhaps you might find that as you travel to interplanetary worlds, even by the light of science, your imagination starts to go a little wild. 

Space has always been the place where the imagination reaches beyond the world as we know it. What happens when we stretch deep into space science and set our imaginations adrift?

Welcome to ATLANTIS, a new creative editorial series released by the Santa Fe Institute’s InterPlanetary Project, which sails through space research and engages with the scientific and philosophical questions that emerge on the voyage. The series is co-created by science writer Natalie Elliot and SFI’s Caitlin McShea, Director of the InterPlanetary Project, who post under the pseudonym “ATLANTIS” – a (fictitious) space-faring ship named after the lost city, “which was said to drown for its hubris, and then rose again to champion the humane use of science.” 

ATLANTIS sets sail to explore the theories and technologies that drive the hunt for extraterrestrial life, the complex challenges of interplanetary recycling, and the ways that the narratives of space exploration are constructed — to name but a few subjects it traverses. Traveling with Shakespeare and David Bowie, to Mars’s Jezero Crater and Jupiter’s moons, the inquiring authors hoist the jolly roger of their imaginative ship, which reads, “if this be science, there is art in’t.” In other words, they show the many ways that the playful voice of art can sound out the most fascinating insights of science. 

Seven dispatches are live to date, and new dispatches are released about every three weeks. The series is hosted on Aliencrashsite.com, named for the official podcast of the InterPlanetary Project, which is hosted on the same site.



Atlantis Dispatch 006: In which ATLANTIS contemplates space junk (May 2021)

Well, world, Ingenuity continues to be a resounding success! Since its glorious inaugural flight, on April 19th, it has gone aerial several more times, and has flown so well that NASA has given it a new mission. Now, Ingenuity will level up on the kinds of terrain it will maneuver and will help prepare future choppers who will join in the hunt for past life.

So while Ingenuity was charging its solar panels, we took a step back from all of that glowing achievement and began to contemplate the dark little question that we planted in our last dispatch: what will become of all the scraps and story seeds that have been planted in Ingenuity’s wake? 

The question, like the universe, began expanding. No longer were we just thinking about Ingenuity’s Wright Flyer swatch, or the Octavia E. Butler Landing. We started reflecting on the other fragments, the ones that float to the surface whenever we go to space. Reader, in our leisure, a patchy genealogy of space artifacts began to emerge. 

We reflected on the Polaroid of Charles Duke’s family that the Apollo astronaut left on the Moon in 1972, and on Voyager’s famous golden record, launched into space in 1977, poised to play Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” for any alien who can figure out how to work the record player (most extant humans sure can’t). Then, we flashed forward to 2018, looking out to Elon’s Tesla Roadster, which orbits the Earth and which contains, in its glove compartment, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, compressed, and etched, in all of its glory, onto a quartz storage device. 

We even took for an imaginative spin the infamous lunar library, which flew and crashed into to the Moon on the Beresheet lunar lander. This library (Borges much?) is a nickel storage block that contains millions of pages of language primers, books, and DNA sequences. Between its alloyed sheets, stuck down in the synthetic resin layers, lie the remains of some stowaway tardigrades

In our reverie, we started wondering, what are these shards of meaning we float across the universe and deposit on other planets? And what are they doing? Are they the code of our future stories? Will they (or those dehydrated tardigrades!) take on a cultural life of their own? 

Or are they bits of sentimental space litter that demonstrate how far we are from grasping our insignificance in the grand scheme of things?...

Read and subscribe to the Dispatches from Atlantis series on Alien Crash Site (March 2021-Present)