When we bring humans to Mars, what sort of flag will we plant in the dirt? The question has relevance for many reasons. First, it will likely be a multinational mission -- unlike the American-led Apollo moon missions of the 1960s. Also, inevitably there will be many more nations represented than those that actually land there, due to items such as components and food that may be supplied by other nations.
There also is another consideration. Just how representative can we be? Maybe a nation doesn't exactly participate in the mission, but it's also true that no nation is an island (at least in the metaphorical sense). All of us depend on trade and talk with other countries to do well. Perhaps we need a new flag altogether. Perhaps, as a Swedish student designer Oskar Pernefeldt suggests, we need an International Flag of Planet Earth.
The flag has a fairly simple design. It has seven circles that come together in a circle, symbolizing how we are linked to each other. Blue represents life-essential water, and the outer rings are supposed to show the edge of Earth against outer space. While no space agency has officially endorsed this idea for Mars exploration, it has caused a little stir on the Internet.
"The international flag of Earth might be the very first flag we have that doesn't pit any of us against each other," wrote Lori White on Upworthy. "A flag that doesn't mean US versus THEM, but a flag that's a pure celebration of us. Earthlings. Together."
We're not sure if that's quite true, given that there are flags that are supposed to represent unity of nations. Think of the Olympics, with its five interlocking circles. If you pick a national flag of Earth, any flag at all, the idea is you're supposed to see at least one of its colors represented in that flag.
Or how about the flag of the United Nations? It's true that not all nations are a part of it yet, but most of them are. It not only includes the Earth, but olive branches that are supposed to symbolize peace. It's such a powerful symbol that the Star Trek "United Federation of Planets" flag actually looks quite similar.
Perhaps if we want to be very inclusive, it would be wise not to plant flags at all. There are many other types of symbols that we can use to represent our planet, without the need of resorting to emblems or fluttering flags. Perhaps we can bring something from planet Earth as a symbol. In the book version of Contact, the main character decides to bring a palm frond to show any potential alien species where we come from.
Another idea is simply to bring photos of Earth. Maps of our planet are full of geographical and political problems when you try to stretch a sphere on to a flat surface, but photos of what we look like from space are universal, beautiful and hopefully a good way to show who we are. At least from afar, if not from up close.
In any case, it's good that some people are thinking hard about the best foot forward that humanity can bring to the universe. What do you think is the best way to show off Earth's colours?
Top image: The International Flag of Earth, on Mars. Credit: Oskar Pernefeldt / Bsmart