Scientists have developed a new message for any intelligent aliens that might be out there. And they want feedback on whether to send it.
The technology required to send the message is not ready yet. And if and when the note is transmitted, it would take thousands of years to reach its destination. In other words, nobody expects a response from ET any time soon. But the researchers behind the alien memo hope their ideas will open up a dialogue about how to contact aliens and what to say — and how to perpetuate humanity as a species.
“We want to send a message in a bottle into the cosmic ocean to say, ‘Hey, we’re here,'” Jonathan Jiang, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, told Live Science, “even if we are no longer here a few years later.”
Related: Why are we still searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life?
The message designed by Jiang and his team builds on previous messages humanity has sent into space; In fact, the researchers timed the creation of the new message to the 50th anniversary of the Arecibo message, the first high-level attempt to contact ET.
This 1974 message used binary code and conveyed information about humanity’s base-10 counting system, common elements of importance, and a map of the solar system. The new message, described in an article published in the Preprint database arXiv (opens in new tab), also encodes information in binary form and describes basic mathematics, physics, and biology that aliens would need to understand humans, including descriptions of DNA, amino acids, and glucose. It would also include a map of the Milky Waythe solar system and Earth itself, including information about the composition of the planet and its atmosphere.
The embassy is more advanced than its predecessors in several ways. First, his map of Earth’s position in the Milky Way is more accurate than that in the Arecibo message. In that message, scientists attempted to use the position of rotating stars, called pulsars, as guides to locate Earth. But pulsar positions are not consistent enough over long periods of time, and these stars are not easily distinguished from one another across the galaxy’s vastness. Instead, Jiang and his team used globular star clusters in the Milky Way as landmarks on their proposed map. Bright and easily visible, these globular star clusters have enough distinguishing features to serve as useful guideposts.
The researchers also built in a unique timestamp so any alien who intercepts the message will know when it was sent. But how do you transmit time to an unknown extraterrestrial civilization that may have very different methods of measurement than Earth’s inhabitants?
The answer, said Message co-designer Qitian Jin of Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, lies in the hydrogen atom. The neutral hydrogen contained in the interstellar gas can change to a high-energy state after collisions with other atoms or electrons. After about 10 million years, one of these high-energy hydrogens undergoes a transition back to a lower-energy state — an event called the spin-flip transition. This spin-flip transition provides a convenient universal unit of time to tell how long after the Big Bang the message was sent.
“I think that’s pretty important because if you see it like a time capsule, if someone gets it, then someone will know when it was sent,” Jin told Live Science. “So they can know our history. They can build on that.”
It might be possible to send multiple messages with updated timestamps and information, Jin added, so a theoretical extraterrestrial civilization could learn more about Earth over time.
Send and receive
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) can be broadly divided into two methods: passive and active. In passive SETI, scientists use giant telescopes to listen for or look for clues that intelligent life is out there. Such notices could include radio waves (opens in new tab)either accidentally or intentionally sent by an extraterrestrial civilization.
Active SETI involves sending signals. These efforts are far less common, and most have so far been largely symbolic. In 1972 and 1973, the Pioneer spacecraft was launched with two panels depicting a line drawing of a man and a woman and symbols intended to show where the spacecraft came from. The tablets were humanity’s first message destined to travel outside the solar system, but the chances of them being found in the vast reaches of space are slim.
In 1977 NASA started a similar long-term experiment with the Voyager space probe, the Golden Record. The disc includes music, animal sounds and spoken greetings in 55 languages. It was designed by a committee led by famed astronomer Carl Sagan and was inspirational to the current research team, said Kristen Fahy, a science systems engineer at JPL and a co-creator of the new message.
“Following that up has really just been an honor,” Fahy told Live Science. The new message features a line drawing of a man and woman, similar to those on the Pioneer plaques, but with a more egalitarian twist: while only the man raised his hand in salute in the 1970s versions, both the man and the woman do it Woman waving hello in modern illustration.
The Arecibo Embassy, unlike Pioneer and Voyager, was an earth-based effort. It was sent to globular cluster M13 from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974, mainly as a symbolic effort. This message is still on its way to its destination; Given that M13 is 25,000 light-years away, it has only traveled about 0.2% of the distance it needs to travel, Jiang and his colleagues wrote in their article.
The newly proposed message would be beamed onto a ring of stars about 13,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way, Jiang told Live Science. This region is believed to contain a number of planets habitable zones (opens in new tab) of their stars, he said.
“If there are aliens, they are most likely there,” he said.
The Arecibo telescope no longer exists; it collapsed in 2020 and was then demolished. The telescopes most likely to carry the message are the 500-meter-aperture spherical radio telescope in Guizhou, China, also known as the Tianyan Telescope, and the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, designed to search for extraterrestrial signals. Neither telescope can currently transmit messages — they can only receive them — but transmission capabilities could be added in future updates, Jiang said.
The researchers hope to spark a conversation about what information to send to aliens and reignite interest in wiretapping messages. Humans are already sending radio, television and radar signals into space — a communications bubble that has been reported to likely span 200 light-years The Planetary Society (opens in new tab). That’s not very far — but the bubble will continue to grow, and the impression humanity is giving may not be the best, said Stuart Taylor, an astrophysicist at the SETI Institute who helped draft the new message.
“It would probably be better since they’re going to listen to us anyway to send a positive message,” Taylor told Live Science. The hope, he said, is that an extraterrestrial civilization advanced enough to reach for the stars would be very cooperative – the “bonobos of the galaxy” – and would offer good advice to Earthlings on how to settle our differences , Taylor said, referring to the relative of peaceful primate relatives of chimpanzees.
“We’re kind of a chimpanzee ‘fighting’ civilization,” Taylor said. “Some other civilizations may have a more fundamentally peaceful personality, like bonobos do.”
Originally published on Live Science.