A drone's-eye view of the cows' message, with an inset of the resulting satellite photo.
A drone’s-eye view of the cows’ message, with an inset of the resulting satellite photo. Screenshot: Youtube

Recently, on an overcast March day, a couple of hundred cows tromped out to a field, arranged themselves into four discrete lines and a dot, and clearly formed the word “Hi.” Soon after, a satellite whooshed overhead, photographing this remarkable greeting, and proving that these most Earthly of creatures had successfully sent a message into space.

The cows, unfortunately, did not do this on their own. The mastermind behind the trick was Derek Klingenberg, a Kansas farmer who moonlights as a YouTube personality. In the past, Klingenberg has arranged his herd into a number of shapes—the Olympic rings, the Pi sign—which he usually films from a drone. For this project, he wanted to see if he could go one better, and make a shape that would be visible from space. He was inspired, he says, by SpaceX’s recent launch of a Tesla Roadster.

Klingenberg uses a service called FarmersEdge, an agri-tech company that uses satellites to photograph fields from space. (They also sponsor his YouTube channel.) The technology is useful for things like aerial crop monitoring, says Klingenberg. “But,” he adds, “then I also thought, you know, it’d be fun if I could take a picture of my cattle. So that’s where I got the idea.”

Timing everything right took some detective work. As Klingenberg explains in the video, he doesn’t know the satellite’s schedules—they’re secret—but judging from the images he receives, they seem to pass over at about the same time each day. To figure out exactly when, he looked at aerial photos of his farm. By pretending his grain silo was a giant sundial, he clocked the satellites’ general flyby time at around 10 a.m.

So one recent morning, he herded his video stars out to a light patch of ground on his farm, to maximize the contrast. He then used his truck to make precise lines out of cattle feed, in the shape of a large “Hi.” The cows duly took their places—“they just want food, you know?” says Klingenberg—and he kept circling, doing his best to keep them in position for as long as he could. Eventually, they broke ranks, thanks to some tasty-looking green grass a few yards away.

The satellite view. It's blurry, but it's there.
The satellite view. It’s blurry, but it’s there. Screenshot: Youtube

A couple of days later, Klingenberg checked the new satellite uploads and discovered his success: There in the middle of the field was a blurry greeting. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I never do anything right the first time, ever.”

As for the chosen message: “I just thought I’d say ‘Hi’ to all the UFOs out there,” says Klingenberg. Now it’s on them to respond.