June 21, 2013 at 10:34 PM ET
When the Sunjammer solar sail is launched for a deep-space test next year, small samples from sci-fi guru Arthur C. Clarke and three pioneers of the "Star Trek" TV series will be going along for the ride. And you can send a message as well.
It's all part of a memorial spaceflight organized by the Houston-based Celestis, which has been putting cremated remains into outer space for 16 years. Hundreds of bits of ash, weighing no more than a few grams each, have been launched on suborbital or orbital flights. The remains of planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker were sent to the moon aboard NASA's Lunar Prospector probe in the late 1990s. Celestis is getting set to send another set of remains on a short trip to space and back on Friday, aboard an UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The Sunjammer flight, set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral in November 2014, will break new ground: It'll be the first Celestis mission to go into deep space. "We're finally able to initiate the Celestis Voyager service, which we've wanted to do for a long time," Charles Chafer, CEO of Space Services Holdings and co-founder of Celestis, told NBC News.
Among those whose ashes will be included on the flight are "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who was an actress on several Trek TV series. Remains from James Doohan, who played the irascible chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, will go up as well. (Samples from Gene Roddenberry and Doohan have been included on previous Celestis flights.)
Clarke will be represented by a single strand of hair, part of a lock that the late writer donated back in 1999. Chafer recalled that Clarke said, "I'd give you more, but I don't have anything to spare."
In a way, Clarke is the most fitting person to ride on Sunjammer: He's the one who came up with the solar sail's name, for a 1963 short story about a sun-yacht race.
Celestis is a commercial partner in the $27 million Sunjammer project, which is funded by NASA and headed up by L'Garde, a California-based company that specializes in inflatable and deployable structures. The 13,000-square-foot (1,208-square-meter) expandable sail will be folded up inside a spacecraft and then placed aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a secondary payload. Sunjammer will be deployed in orbit along with a bigger satellite, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Deep Space Climate Observatory.
After separation from the Falcon 9, the Sunjammer spacecraft will open up its sail and head for a position about 1.8 million miles (3 million kilometers) from Earth, propelled by the force of photons from the sun. The aim of the mission is to test solar-sail propulsion techniques as well as monitor solar weather.
"It's the culmination of generations of hopes that we can harness the sun," Chafer said.
He said Sunjammer would remain in space forever, tracing an orbit around the sun between Earth and Venus. The samples from Clarke, Doohan, the Roddenberrys and dozens of others would stay out there as well, protected inside lipstick-sized metal containers.
'Message in a bottle'
Celestis is selling spots on the memorial spaceflight for prices ranging from $12,500 on up. The company will also let people send digitized messages for inclusion aboard the spacecraft, as part of a service it calls MindFiles. Messages are already pouring in via the SunjammerMission.com website. "Greetings from the early 21st century, from an aerospace worker ... who loves space exploration," one message reads.
"It's kind of like a Facebook post," Chafer explained. "You put photos in, or anything you want, and we'll take that information, burn it onto a disk and send it out to deep space. It's like a message in a bottle, but it could also be like a Library of Alexandria."
And if you want to be like Arthur C. Clarke, you can send a BioFile — a single strand of hair, and/or digital DNA markers, that will be packaged to endure in outer space. Theoretically, it might be possible for an alien civilization to turn that BioFile into a clone, as Clarke hoped would be the case when he donated his hair. Chafer makes no guarantee, however.
"It's a symbolic action more than anything else," he said, "but it's a way to have a little bit of you go on a space mission, and you don't have to die first."
More about space memorials:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log pageto your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.