Let’s Put the Wikipedia in Space: The Arch Project

UPDATE: The Arch Mission Foundation was officially launched on October 24, 2016


In this article, I propose an achievable project to seed the solar system and eventually the universe with digital copies of humanity’s most important knowledge — stored in digital archives that I call “Archs.”

There are many reasons to attempt a project like this – for one thing, it’s an inspirational idea if nothing else — but beyond that it could be of benefit to future generations on Earth.

One benefit is as a planetary insurance policy – a backup of our most important knowledge – in the extremely unlikely but not impossible case that an extinction-level event takes place (take your pick: comet impact, meteor impact, global thermonuclear war, sudden volcanic greenhouse, global pandemic, biowarfare, nanotechnology grey goo apocalypse, giant solar flare or galactic high energy particle burst,  large scale EMP event, or the rise of evil robots or AI that terminate the humans, etc.).

But fortunately this project also has benefits if the world does not end — for example, it can evolve over time into a solar system wide area storage network for storing and accessing data in orbital and locations.

It can also serve as a near-term educational project, inspiration and catalyst for bringing awareness of our fragile ecosystem and the many valuable contributions to humanity’s knowledge across cultures. For example, students, teachers, and experts around the world can collaborate to add knowledge to the archive, and the archive can be accessible online to anyone.

The first step in this project is possible to begin today, relatively inexpensively, using new generations of cubesats and/or by piggybacking on commercial satellite launches. As a non-profit project with benefit to humanity, it should be possible to get some space on commercial launches that have room for interesting payloads.

I have been thinking about this project for many years, and now it seems the time has come for this to be possible. Below is a sketch of a proposal for how this project might be structured.

Phase One: 2016 to 2050

Arch 1

(a) Launch a simple storage device into high earth orbit, containing the entire Wikipedia in English.

This can be achieved today by piggybacking a small digital storage device, or getting some shared storage space, on a commercial satellite. Digital storage devices vary in lifespan. The device would be piggybacked on a geostationary orbit satellite so that it remains easy to find and in high orbit. It’s location should be known. Ideally it should be remotely updatable from earth based ground stations.

(b) In a later iteration of the project selected additional information might included, as storage permits, such as more languages of the Wikipedia, data for full genomes from a wide diversity of species, curated wisdom from leading countries and organizations, and perhaps paid sections by sponsors containing whatever they want.

(c) Launch multiple devices with the same information into multiple non-earth locations (high earth orbit, lunar orbit, cometary earth orbit, etc.)

(d) Also place Arch 1 locations on Earth in relatively safe places.

Arch 2

(a) Launch a more sophisticated design of the Arch storage device, with more storage and an interactive interface whereby they can also transmit the data they contain back to receivers on Earth via various Internet interfaces.

(c) Also place Arch 2’s on Earth in safe locations

Phase 2: 2050 and 2100

Arch 3

(a) Design a device with a dead-man’s switch; if it does not receive a manual response to a periodic ping, it goes into contact mode and sends radio signals back to earth periodically to indicate its location until contact is re-established. Once contact is re-established it transmits the information it contains back to earth in an endless loop, on a periodic schedule. 

(b) Design a more sophisticated device that can initiate contact with a radio age civilization on earth and interact with them intelligently to teach them make use of the information held on the device. This may require teaching them to build a more complicated receiver, computer, and communications system that is capable of interacting with a more sophisticated interface in the device.

(c) Also place Arch 3’s on Earth in hardened locations (deep underground salt mines, caves, etc.).

Arch 4

(a) Go beyond Earth and lunar orbits. Distribute Archs to other orbital locations in the solar system (mars orbit, orbits of other planets)

(b) Distribute Archs to surfaces of other bodies in solar system beyond Earth and moon.

Phase 3: 2100 and beyond

Arch 5

Here the project would expand in three dimensions: (1) making Archs smarter and more autonomous, (3) making Archs smaller, (4) making archs able to self-replicate and self-power using materials found in space (such as on meteorites or low gravity moons).

This phase is still science-fiction from the perspective of today’s technology, but it’s going to be possible within the next 50 to 100 years.

As a stretch goal, if it were possible to encode the entire Arch into the genome of a common and hardy bacteria (perhaps in the “junk DNA” region?)  it could also be introduced to new planets as we reach them to spread the Arch far and wide (yes, this does raise ethical questions about whether seeding a planet with a new lifeform is ok, but fortunately we probably have some time before we have to worry about this).

Help Fund This

Believe it or not, Arch 1 can be achieved within 24 months for less than $1M US. Even a few hundred thousand dollars could buy payload space on an upcoming launch. If you think you can help raise a substantial amount of this, or would like to donate, please reach out and let me know. I’m considering a Kickstarter project.