After SpaceX launched its powerful triple-booster FalconHeavy, all eyes were on Starman, the mannequin “ driving” Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster to toward Mars. It was a striking sight in so many ways, for its ambition and for the haunting vision of that solitary figure leaving us behind. What wasn’t well-known at the time, though, was that Starman wasn’t the Teslas’s only cargo: Also stashed in there were two tiny, data-packed discs that held the entire Foundation sci-fi trilogy written by Isaac Asimov. What these discs were and why they were there is jaw-dropping.

Each disk is an “Arch™” — pronounced “ark,” short for “archive” — from the Arch Mission Foundation, a “non-profit corporation designed to continuously preserve and disseminate humanity’s most important knowledge across time and space.”

(Arch Mission Foundation)


The Asimov opus is the first literature in envisioned free-floating libraries of human knowledge — others are planned for the orbits of the sun and Mars, as well as one on the surface of the moon. The Mission says, “The Arch Libraries are primarily designed for humans, both in the near future and the distant future. There is also a slight, but non-zero, probability that the Arch Libraries might be useful to non-human intelligent lifeforms in the distant future.”

Onboard the FalconHeavy were two Arch discs, Arch 1.1 and Arch 1.2, from a set of five existing discs made with cutting-edge storage technology. They have an absolutely massive capacity and an amazing life expectancy. Arch 1.1 and 1.2 can each hold up to 360 terabytes of data, and remain readable for up to 13.8 billion years, even in the harsh environment in space — the discs can withstand temperatures up to 1,000°C.

Arch discs

(Arch Mission Foundation)

Peter Kazansky, who developed the technology at the Optoelectronics Research Centre of the University of Southampton, says, “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”

The discs are made of so-called “Superman memory crystal.” It’s glass with three layers of nanostructured dots, or “nanodots,” etched 5 μm (micrometers) apart in quartz using femtosecond laser writing, a process that writes data with very intense, very short laser pulses. The process is referred to as “5D data storage,” those being the three dimensions of each nanodot’s location on the disk, plus size and orientation.

5D disc

(Arch Mission Foundation)

These Arch discs may be just the beginning. The Arch Mission and its partners are currently using, developing, or testing:

• 5D laser optical data storage in quartz

• Nickel ion-beam atomic-scale storage

• Molecular storage on DNA molecules

• Durable space-based flash drive storage

• Long duration DVD disk technology

• Quantum information storage

The Arch Mission believes that within 10 years, they’ll be able to store petabytes of data on each disc.

As impressive as the Arch discs are technologically, the planned Arch libraries are mind-boggling.

The Arch Mission sees these far-flung repositories of human knowledge providing a host of benefits to future humans. Right now they believe the project can get everyone involved in, and excited about, the compiling of all human knowledge. In the near future they see the portable, connected libraries as being able to “back up and deliver enormous archives of knowledge (such as all the content we want, even the entire Internet) to human settlements and colonies in space and on other planetary bodies around our solar system over the next several hundred to few thousand years.” If, in the distant future, we manage to wipe ourselves out, any survivors will have the information they need to rebuild civilization. Assuming they have a means of accessing the Arch libraries, of course.

For any non-humans coming across our libraries, the Mission is designing their physical appearance to make their contents clear to alien minds, including decoding instructions in the center of each disc.

Arch decoder

(Arch Mission Foundation)

There are a lot of issues to consider regarding the Arch Mission Foundation’s plans, and you’ll probably find browsing their website thought-provoking. They operate on the assumption that telling the universe about us is a good idea, but that’s just one thing to think about, and they’re quite aware of some of the galaxy-scaled philosophical issues involved.