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First contact: How to send a message to another planet

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Rendez-vous

IN 2029 the inhabitants, if any, of the planet GJ 273b will receive a message that will change their lives forever. Encoded in radio signals emanating from an innocuous-looking blue-green planet 12.4 light-years away, will be tutorials in mathematics and physics, followed by a burst of music. The import of the message, however, will be clear: “Let’s talk.”

Or so Douglas Vakoch hopes. For on November 16th Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the group that he heads, and the organisers of Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, announced they had sent a series of missives towards Luyten’s star, the red dwarf around which GJ 273b orbits.

“Sónar Calling GJ 273b”, as the initiative is called, sent its message in mid-October from a radar antenna at Ramfjordmoen, in Norway. The antenna, run by EISCAT, a scientific organisation based at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, is usually used to study Earth’s atmosphere. But EISCAT has form when it comes to messaging extraterrestrials. On June 12th 2008 the organisation beamed a 30-second advertisement for Doritos tortilla chips towards the constellation Ursa Major.

Dr Vakoch’s data were encoded in binary and sent on two frequencies, with a pulse in one frequency standing for “1” and the other for “0”. They include a count from one to five, mathematical operations like addition and multiplication, simple trigonometry and a description of electromagnetic waves. There is also a clock that counts the seconds that have passed since the transmissions began. That is the science.

The art comes courtesy of music from luminaries such as Jean-Michel Jarre. What GJ 273b’s inhabitants will make of the ten-second pieces, composed specially for the transmission, is unclear. But without them no message would have been sent, for Sónar is the one bankrolling the project in order to mark its 25th anniversary next year.

Nor is that the only anniversary. This week’s announcement coincides with the 43rd anniversary of the Arecibo message, a brief pictorial guide to humanity and the solar system, sent in 1974 from a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico towards Messier 13, a cluster of stars some 25,000 light years away.

METI’s message is simpler than the Arecibo broadcast, and should, its senders hope, prove easier for its putative audience to decipher. The team hope to send more transmissions to the planet in April 2018, including a time when Earth will be listening for their reply: the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice in 2043. The team plans to send a similar message to thousands of other stars, in the hope of boosting the chances that at least one will find an audience.

Critics of such schemes argue that alerting the cosmos to humanity’s existence is a risky business. Dr Vakoch is not worried. He points out that it is in any case too late to keep quiet. An alien civilisation just a few hundred years more advanced than Earth’s would have the technology to detect the radio and television signals that human beings have inadvertently sent into space for decades.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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