The challenge of storing data in space for 100 years

The “payload” is the stored information that serves as a time capsule for the University of Michigan’s Bicentennial Celebration. One aspect of the payload is the information from interviews of students, faculty, alumni, and staff that make up the community of the University of Michigan. This information is required to survive the harsh space radiation environment for 100 years, and yet be light and small enough to fit in a 3"x3"x0.5" space. 

 The currently pursued and well-tested solution is to use Electron-Beam Lithography to physically engrave data onto a surface. The University of Michigan’s Lurie Nanofabrication Facility (LNF) has these capabilities and has assisted with the development of the payload. With the skills and expertise of the LNF staff, we are successfully executing this complex procedure.


This information will come mainly in the form of 3 formats, text, images and audio. The text files are nothing but a simple ASCII coding where by the written data will be encrypted. The image files are first translated into a bitmap file format of very high resolution to achieve very good accuracy, contrast and sharpness on the output etched image on the data chip. The data engraved on the silicon chip can only be read through a Scanning Electron Microscope or an Atomic Force Microscope when the time capsule is retrived in 100 years.


The DNA Experiment

The DNA Experiment

                M-Barc is about science! True, our core mission is to preserve our stories for others to experience in 100 years, but why not go the extra mile and do some science along the way? It isn’t often that scientists have the opportunity to stage experiments in low-Earth orbit, let alone for 100 years. M-Barc presents a unique opportunity for scientific endeavors, and the DNA sub-team is taking full advantage of that opportunity. They’re going to plant “the University of Michigan Statement” inside DNA, and see if it survives the 100-year journey.

                Storing information in DNA, while amazing, is nothing new. What is new, or rather unknown, is the longevity of this technique. Exactly how long can DNA hold information accurately? Does the harsh environment of outer space effect that timespan? Given the substantial lifespan of solid state drives, you might wonder why it would matter how long binary information can be preserved in DNA. The power is in the capacity. DNA can hold around 700 terabytes in single gram—that’s nearly 11,000 iPhones worth of storage.  Efficiency like that leaves SSD’s in the dust, so it’s worth understanding the limitations of the DNA. If we ever wanted to send physical packages of information out into the cosmos, like we did on the Voyager spacecraft, it would be nice to know if the DNA technique would work, since we can fit a lot more information by that method than on vinyl (what we used on Voyager), or even on solid state drives.

                It would be unfortunate to write a message to future generations, future space travelers, or even another species, only for our data to decay along the way. The DNA sub-team will take us a step-closer to understanding the potential of DNA information storage.


Why Go to Space?

“Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.” -Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

            Like space, the motivation behind the M-barc project is big. Really big. Time capsules have long been the victims of deep bouts underground, in confined space, imprisoned by concrete or dirt. Digging them up feels more like an uncomfortable walk through an underfunded museum than an exercise in appreciating the past. That isn’t our fault, it’s the time capsule’s. In turn, humanity has long looked at the stars when overcome with questions about the future. We look up to go forward, outward to understand something greater than ourselves, and reach for heights beyond our grasp, standing on each other’s shoulders in camaraderie just to show the world that we can. Isn’t it time we put that same power of thought and foresight into a time capsule?

             That is a piece of the M-barc vision that transforms the mission from one about a mere time capsule into a vision looking towards the future. A time capsule should not be buried in the ground like a corpse, exhumed at some time so that people may chuckle at trinkets of the past. Like history itself, a time capsule should be alive, a thing of power and will. It should wrestle against the laws of nature and in turn its recipients must do the same. M-barc will not sit dormant for a century, but rather send our successors on a glorious chase, and they must emerge triumphant to hear our voices. Our time capsule should reflect who we are, and who we are is a collection of people, from all corners of the world, working towards a unified future. Our time capsule will carry that vision on its journey.

M-BARC Has Secured A Test Launch Through the United Launch Alliance! #mbarcwon

It has been an exciting summer for M-BARC! This past summer, the team applied to test launch a 1U CubeSat through a rideshare program with United Launch Alliance (ULA). The University of Michigan is one of four universities that has been awarded the opportunity to complete this test launch. The program, titled CubeCorp, is a way to encourage STEM education in college students. Through the hard work of the team, especially team lead Michael Gapczynski, M-BARC now has an excellent opportunity to test some of its 3U CubeSat features on this 1U test launch. After submitting an application and a thorough review from ULA, M-BARC was chosen to be a winner and launch with a future Atlas V mission. This is really exciting news for the team! We are all thrilled to receive this opportunity. The timeline for this test launch has not been decided yet, but keep following our story for any future updates. To read more about this win, read the ULA press release at

Update From the Propulsion, Launch and Orbit Team

Update From the Propulsion, Launch and Orbit Team

The propulsion, launch and orbit team have been working on finding a suitable final orbit for our capsule during its 100 years in space. Due to the 25-year orbital lifetime rule to be outside of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit), we need a propulsion system to get it to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) for the rest of its journey. To do this, we need the perigee, which is the closest point the CubeSat will be to earth during orbit, to be raised to an altitude of 2100 km and the apogee, the farthest point of the orbit, to be reduced to an altitude of 35000km after being dropped off into a GTO (Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit) by the launch provider.

When deciding which method of propulsion to use we have to consider certain constraints the CubeSat has. We have to compensate performance and total burn duration for the physical constraints, such as the size of the CubeSat, its mass and thermal soak-back issues from the thruster. We are currently deciding between two different methods of propulsion—electric or chemical. Electric propulsion (EP) devices generally have a lower thrust of the two, meaning it will take longer to get into the right orbit, about 140 days as a rough estimate. Alternatively, chemical propulsion systems have a relatively higher thrust and a maneuver would only take about 15 days.

To determine which system will work for the amount of ΔV required, with a mass constraint on propellant, we consider the Isp or specific impulse. For a higher Isp, less propellant is needed to get the capsule into the final orbit, giving EP the upper hand. Given the Isp of a thruster, the orbit team works to simulate the maneuver and determine the ΔV, or the change in velocity, needed to change orbits successfully. From their simulations, we have discovered that the CubeSat needs a ΔV of 250 m/s to perform a successful orbit change and, from there, the team works out how much propellant will be needed based on the method of propulsion used. 


Update From the Public Relations Team

To make our time capsule significant, not only scientifically, but historically, the PR team has been working on a way to represent the University through 1,000 interviews of students, staff, faculty and alumni. As much as we’d like to interview the first batch of interested subjects, we’re attempting to accomplish more than provide content.

Our University is very diverse and, with these diverse backgrounds, each individual interprets Michigan a bit differently. What one student from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan takes our campus for varies from how an exchange student from England sees when they leave their dorm. To represent the current state of the University, we’ve taken our 1,000 interviews are broken them up across the demographics of the school. Categories we’ve used include the most popular majors, non-teaching staff and alumni from each school at the University.

Making sure we cover all of the demographics outlining the University is salient for this project, as we want to students 100 years from now to have a true understanding of what it’s like to attend the University of Michigan right now and live in 2016/2017. Getting candid, pure interviews is our goal. As we start to conduct these interviews, we have anticipated that our hardest challenge will be meeting each category of student. The most eager students may be the easiest to interview, but we wouldn’t be giving students in the future a true overview of our school today. It may be a challenge meeting our guidelines, but it’s important to our mission. 

Why I Care About M-BARC by Thomas Zurbuchen

Why I Care About M-BARC by Thomas Zurbuchen

Universities, especially public universities, are places that change lives. Teenagers from around the world arrive at them, each with their own strengths, interests, insecurities, and big challenges. And just a few years later, these young adults leave their universities, ready to tackle the world. There is still some trepidation, there is respect, but there is a security that comes from knowing that they have unusual knowledge, special experiences, and a whole bunch of opportunities waiting for them. Most importantly, as part of their university experience, these young professionals have learned how to interact with people who are not like them, and have grown as individuals from those encounters.

Much has been written about higher education, especially at public universities like the University of Michigan. Yet, most of this work focuses entirely on one type of relationship, which is at the center of universities: the relationship between students and their professors. Nobody questions the importance of this relationship, but working in a university is about much more.

Universities require infrastructure and personnel to make them run. This aspect of the university has almost nothing to do with professors, and very little to do with students. All day, there are custodians, maintenance workers, campus police, bus-drivers, and health professionals that make the university go and keep students safe. Many of these workers do not have degrees from the University of Michigan, yet they still play crucial roles in the daily operation of this campus. There are also administrative, financial staff and—most importantly—staff who are often better educated than most professors to deal with special needs of students. Sometimes these needs relate to career planning, other times they are about mental health or dealing with financial difficulties. These staff members are the ones that support faculty and students in their research administration; without them, there is not one research grant to work on, not one invention, not one startup company.

Yet, there are even more individuals that enable students to have rich university experiences. There are grateful alumni who give back and support both students and the university. Many current student workers and volunteers become active in their environments and enable businesses in the vicinity of the university. In fact, the impact of this workforce and the research is a life-changing force for the entire region and the entire state. Most areas of economic growth nationally have at their center an active, engaged university.

The key purpose of M-BARC is to celebrate the University and the life-changing impact it has had on the surrounding community over the past 200 years. But, M-BARC seeks to do so by exploring and documenting the social network and interactions at the heart of the University of Michigan. We will never understand our university in the future if we don’t examine the diverse, expansive community that makes daily life here possible. There is value in seeking to understand the collective experience of a university, one where people come together each day to build an experience unmatched in the nation, an experience that changes people’s lives.

Update from the Tracking Team

Update from the Tracking Team

Satellite laser ranging (SLR) ground station at the University of Hawaii. Photo courtesy of NASA

Satellite laser ranging (SLR) ground station at the University of Hawaii. Photo courtesy of NASA

When you think of a time capsule, you imagine something that stays in the same place until it is ready to be opened. What M-BARC is creating is no typical time capsule, however. It will be hurtling through space in an orbit around Earth for 100 years. That orbit will change over time, which creates a new challenge: finding the spacecraft when the time comes to retrieve it in 2117.

The M-BARC team is addressing this challenge by developing an active tracking scheme using satellite laser ranging (SLR).

SLR is a technique that uses laser pulses to measure the distance to a satellite equipped with retroreflectors. A retroreflector is a device that is designed to reflect incoming light to its origin, regardless of the light’s angle of entry. To determine the range, the SLR system uses a time-of-flight method to measure the delay in sending a laser pulse to the retroreflectors on a spacecraft. This range is then used in an orbit determination model to estimate the spacecraft’s orbit and instantaneous position. By taking regular SLR measurements, the spacecraft can be tracked with high accuracy for future retrieval.

The M-BARC team is currently designing the retroreflectors that will be placed on the external faces of the spacecraft. The results of preliminary analyses have shown sufficient probability of detection by a SLR system. Soon, the retroreflectors will begin to be tested to confirm our predicted results.


Payload Prototype

Payload Prototype

Each day, M-BARC comes closer to bringing our space time capsule to fruition. The Bus team is thrilled to announce that we’ve created a prototype of the section of our spacecraft that will house the payload—what the spacecraft will carry. The payload will be the main part of the time capsule and contain the items to be retrieved in 100 years.

The payload prototype is 3x10x10 cm, which is the actual size. To put in perspective how small this is, it is roughly the size of a sandwich. While it may not seem like much space, the payload will contain the most impactful elements of the time capsule and is critical to its success.

Currently, there are three major components that make up the time capsule, and the payload prototype takes these into account: There will be space for the nano-printed data chips, which are housing our encrypted interview data. There will be room for a physical object from campus, an element of the time capsule that is not yet finalized. There will also be a space for our DNA experiment, where we will put organic material into space in order to see how cosmic radiation affects it after 100 years.

In addition to these components, the prototype also includes a solar panel, which will power an LED beacon that emits a radiation signature. Because we are sending this time capsule to space for the University’s bicentennial celebration, the payload will be fashioned with block ‘M’s along its sides that double as structural support.

The prototype is still quite preliminary, and the internal organization will likely change depending upon the design of the radiation experiment. The data chips are small enough to have little impact on the internal organization. At this time, we have not analyzed how the payload will respond to the space environment.


Radiation Experiment Update

Radiation Experiment Update

The Michigan Bicentennial Archive team, M-BARC, has the unique opportunity to create a vessel that will be exposed to space radiation for one hundred years. Considering that the advent of space exploration only began halfway through the last century, no spacecraft has been exposed to space radiation for as long M-BARC’s will be.

Initially, our team wanted to put organic material into the M-BARC time capsule and attempt to shield it from radiation to preserve it for the tricentennial celebration. After considering the inevitability of the radiation that the spacecraft would be exposed to, we came up with a better idea: let the M-BARC time capsule serve as a 100-year radiation exposure experiment.

Our team is currently working to develop an experiment in which DNA and organic material will be sent up with the satellite and stored inside it for 100 years. The resilience of DNA is an attribute in this case, but sequencing DNA after such a long time may prove difficult. It can be predicted with some accuracy what might happen to organic material after 100 years of space radiation, but no experiment of this magnitude has been carried out yet.

As the experiment is developed, these challenges will be considered; as the spacecraft is developed more, the size and scope of the radiation experiment will be solidified.


Update from the M-BARC Team

Update from the M-BARC Team

The Public Relations team meeting to discuss the website and marketing initiatives

The Public Relations team meeting to discuss the website and marketing initiatives

The Michigan Bicentennial Archive (M-BARC) team is excited to update our followers about the current status of the space time capsule. As of now, our project is officially endorsed by the University of Michigan Bicentennial Committee, and we are thrilled to play a role in the bicentennial celebration in 2017.  

The idea for a space time capsule was originally pitched by Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen in a graduate-level course titled “Spacecraft Technology” taught by Prof. Nilton Renno in the Fall 2015 semester. From there, an initial team of five students created the framework of the project. After first conducting a preliminary analysis to ensure the project was feasible and able to be executed, the team then defined preliminary system requirements and identified elements of the spacecraft that would determine the rest of the design.

The team grew when the project became a part of the Multidisciplinary Design Program through the College of Engineering, and undergraduates and graduate students from throughout the university were invited to join the team. Currently, the M-BARC team is made up of 24 members from a variety of disciplines. Many of our members are Engineering students, whose programs span from aerospace to chemical engineering and everything in between. However, our team also consists of students from the Ross School of Business, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and the School of Art & Design, to encompass a broad range of perspectives.

Now, as M-BARC moves into its detailed design and system development phase, the work we are doing is critical to ensuring the time capsule is ready to be delivered for launch in time for the bicentennial celebration. The multidisciplinary nature of this project truly shines through the five distinct sub-teams that compose our overarching group. Brief descriptions of the sub-teams are as follows:

  1. The Bus team is working to design the space vehicle itself, as well as the nanoprinting technology that will house our time capsule data.

  2. The Orbit, Launch, and Propulsion team is investigating propulsion methods and determining where our time capsule will be located in space for 100 years.

  3. The Tracking team is devising a way to locate our time capsule from earth as it orbits for the next century.

  4. The Public Relations team is crafting the content that will exist in the time capsule, managing donations and fundraising, and making sure this project gains momentum here at the University of Michigan and beyond.

Space travel is a relatively young phenomenon: existing for just shy of sixty years, humanity has a long way to go before we fully understand the possibilities in outer space. This time capsule is the first of its kind, and that work that the M-BARC team is doing is groundbreaking. The contents of our time capsule will serve as a portal to the past—to 2017—one century from now. We’re not only making history; we’re putting history into space.

Each day our team moves closer to making this project a reality, and M-BARC is more than excited to watch the space time capsule come to fruition in 2017.

We hope to keep this page current with updates on the project, as we are entering a stage where all teams are working hard simultaneously. A social media campaign is also in the works—stay tuned for future posts!