Jun 1, 2023 - Science

Poem bound for Jupiter's moon Europa ties Earth to the watery world

Europa. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS; Image processing: Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0

U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón on Thursday revealed her poem that will fly to Jupiter's moon Europa aboard NASA's Europa Clipper mission.

The big picture: The mission follows in the tradition of others — like NASA's Voyagers — that have sent pieces of art representing humanity into the cosmos.

What's happening: The poem uses water as a thread that binds Earth — and all of its humans — to Europa, a moon with an ocean beneath its icy shell.

  • "We are creatures of constant awe, curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom, at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow," Limón writes. "And it is not darkness that unites us, not the cold distance of space, but the offering of water, each drop of rain."
  • The poem is going to be engraved in Limón's handwriting and affixed to the spacecraft, expected to launch in October 2024.

For Limón, writing the poem was a very human endeavor.

  • "The thing I think that makes me the most beautifully overwhelmed is the idea of all the humans that are going to read it," she tells Axios.
  • The poem, called "In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa," is featured on a NASA webpage where people can sign up to send their names to Europa with the spacecraft.
  • "I think to have it feel collective is really, really extraordinary to me, because it does feel like it's not my poem," Limón said. "It does feel like a collective poem. And as soon as I wrote it, it felt like oh, this belongs to Earth. This is our poem for Earth."

Between the lines: Sending the poem to Europa is an "evolution" of NASA's Golden Record, which is flying through space aboard the Voyager spacecraft, Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist, tells Axios.

  • Those records contain sounds from Earth — including music, laughter and animal noises — as well as a map of where we are in the galaxy. They are now billions of miles away, flying through interstellar space.
  • "This is an outgrowth in that we're not going to the stars," Pappalardo says. "There's no message to aliens here. This is purely a message to ourselves and a symbolic message to Europa."
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