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A library for Mars

The Phoenix Mars Lander is equipped with instruments that could detect the signature of life on Mars - but it also carries signatures, stories and lots more for future generations. The nonprofit Planetary Society is sending along what's billed as the first library for the Red Planet: a silica-glass mini-DVD encoded with scores of stories about space exploration, audio and artwork from some of our planet's best and brightest, plus digitally encoded names submitted by thousands of Earthlings. Perhaps the coolest thing about the DVD is the label addressed to future visitors on Mars: "Attention Astronauts: Take This With You."

NASA / JPL / Lockheed Martin
The Planetary Society's mini-DVD, packed chock full

of digital signatures and goodies from Earth's

cultures, can be seen mounted on the Phoenix Mars

Lander during preparations for launch.

It's not out of the question that some Marswalker will actually pick up and decipher that DVD someday: After all, one of the places moonwalkers have visited is the landing site for the Surveyor 3 probe, which touched down in 1966 and happened to be within walking distance of the Apollo 12 lunar module three years later.

Unfortunately, it will take humans much more than three years to get to Phoenix's intended landing site in Mars' northern highlands. Fortunately, the Planetary Society's DVD is built to last at least 500 years, and perhaps much, much longer.

What would a Martian traveler find on the disk? Assuming that he or she could figure out how to decode the DVD, the "library" would yield 80 forward-looking stories and articles - including literary classics penned by Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, science-fiction classics by Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, and many more goodies well worth adding to your reading list. Of course you'll find Orson Welles' radio retelling of "The War of the Worlds," as well as Mars-themed sci-fi art and photos of the real Mars, as seen by past space probes.

The DVD also includes audio-enhanced slideshows in which Clarke and other luminaries (including the late Carl Sagan) speak directly to future Martians. For Sagan's audio clip, go to this Web page and click on the link titled "Hear Carl Sagan's Message to the Future."

These presentations, along with many of the text/video/audio selections, were first placed on a CD-ROM titled "Visions of Mars" more than a decade ago. In an exercise much like the current project, the CD-ROM was placed on Russia's Mars 96 probe. That spacecraft, however, never got out of Earth orbit due to the failure of a booster stage. The first Martian library went down in flames, and the Planetary Society had to start from scratch.

"We were looking for several years for another ride, essentially," the Planetary Society's Susan Lendroth explained. The team behind Phoenix Mars Lander obliged, and so "Visions of Mars" project director Jon Lomberg updated the content for a fresh launch.

Meanwhile, the society put out a call for people to submit their names for digital inclusion on the disk - following up on similar "send-your-name-to-space" projects for the Mars Exploration Rovers, Selene, Stardust, and so on. About 250,000 people answered the call (including yours truly).

Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society, said the resulting mini-DVD is made of material that should last even though it's sitting on the exposed part of the spacecraft, in full view of Martian passers-by. That's the whole point, said the society's executive director, Louis Friedman.

"Since the Planetary Society's disk should last for centuries on Mars, we hope astronauts at some future date will enjoy the visionary works we have sent in this first Martian library," Friedman said in a news release. "These tales and images have inspired generations about the wonder of space, including many men and women who are now researchers and engineers in the space program."

What would you put on a digital disk destined for another world? Are there obvious choices that Friedman, Lomberg and the other folks behind "Visions of Mars" have missed? One audio expert has wondered whether "Visions of Mars" would be playable even a few decades from now, let alone hundreds of years - and that's an interesting point. Do you have any better ideas for preserving interplanetary time capsules? Feel free to leave your suggestions as comments below.

Update for 9:30 p.m. ET Aug. 1: If you follow the Web link in the paragraph just above, you'll read that the audio quality for the original "Visions of Mars" CD might not have been up to snuff. It turns out that the audio was redone at higher quality for the Phoenix mini-DVD, addressing that concern.