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KEO time capsule could remain in orbit until 52001 AD

Keo satellite
Diagrams of the winged Keo satellite and, at bottom right, the capsule it will ride into orbit  

(CNN) -- Will Earth still be inhabited 50,000 years from now? A French organization thinks so. In fact, it's confident enough to send those future dwellers a gift from space.

The KEO satellite, expected to launch in 2001, would fly high above the Earth with messages from as many humans as possible, possibly well into the billions, according to KEO project managers in Paris.

After traveling for 50 millennia in orbit, the satellite would return to the planet, delivering CD-ROM messages from KEO participants.

To name their satellite project, supporters researched the most frequent phonemes in major world languages and came up with "K," "E" and "O." A phoneme is the smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning.

Anyone can submit a message at no cost to KEO via electronic and conventional mail. Ranging from school children to prisoners, people from more than 120 countries have already submitted missives for the future, according to the Paris-based non-profit group.

The messages are uncensored and remain in their original language, but must not exceed 6,000 characters in length, said Jean-Marc Philippe, a French artist who founded the project in 1994.

Concerned by how quickly modern civilization has advanced, Philippe came up with KEO to convince humans to reflect on the common future. Ideally he hopes to gather messages from every person on the planet.

Philippe chose to send KEO into space rather than bury it on Earth because, "I felt that space appeals more to the human imagination," he wrote on the KEO Web site.

"Furthermore complications would have arisen over the question of where and in what country the record would be buried. Whereas space belonged to everyone."

Political bodies have lent their support. For example, the president of the International Olympic Committee endorsed the mission.

The project is relying entirely on contributions, and numerous aerospace companies have already donated goods or services. Arianespace, the commercial partner of the European Space Agency, has tentatively agreed to launch the satellite next year.

The messages will become freely accessible on the Internet following the launch.

KEO is designed to soar to 8,700 miles (1,400 km) above Earth. It will sport a pair of decorative wings to give terrestrial observers a better chance to spot it in the sky. Made of special metal alloys, the wings should open and close as they pass between sunlight and darkness, using only natural solar power.

The powerless orbiter should drift downward for 50,000 years or so and then crash into the planet, protected by strong metal alloys as it lands. Should KEO land in an ocean it would float, Philippe said.

Even if KEO survives, how will future intelligent beings understand the perhaps billions of messages inscribed on CD-ROMs? The satellite will include a "user manual," with instructions on how to construct a CD player.

"Like the Rosetta Stone, the information will be represented in such a manner so as to facilitate the task of decryption," Philippe wrote.

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