Is there anybody out there? More than four decades ago, in 1974, astronomers beamed a message from humanity to any aliens in outer space who might be listening. Even in a best-case scenario, it hasn’t reached any place yet where it could be heard. Still, after sending the message using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – the one made famous in the 1997 movie Contact with Jodie Foster – researchers are getting ready to do it again.
In the film, Foster’s character, a researcher named Ellie Arroway, is using the Arecibo dish to look for SETI – which stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, but also simply means alien, or “little green men,” as she jokes. In Contact, based on a novel of the same name by a famous US astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, aliens find us first, sending radio messages that Arroway intercepts using a huge telescope array, the VLA in New Mexico.
Here in real life on Earth, it was Frank Drake who put together the message to aliens. He used binary code to tell intelligent extraterrestrial life that we humans are sentient too. The original Arecibo message contained information such as the numbers one to 10, and a figure of a human, albeit without a head. The astronomers then beamed this message in the direction of a globular cluster called Messier 13, also known as The Great Hercules Cluster – a huge group of stars orbiting a galactic core, some 22,200 light-years away.
Drake’s assumption was based on his equation estimating the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life. He hoped that any intelligent aliens would be able to decode the message and respond. One problem: it will take, well, 22,200 years for the message to even reach the cluster, and another 22,200 before anything could come back. In other words, we still have some waiting to do.
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Now that the veteran observatory in Arecibo has turned 44, its researchers have launched a competition to compose a new message for SETI. This time though, the scientists want to involve school kids through an online competition. To enter, teams of students will first have to solve puzzles about space exploration, Arecibo and astronomy.
Only the first 45 teams to solve the puzzles will be able to submit a design that could be beamed beyond the Solar System – although the direction has yet to be decided. The interstellar message is due to be broadcast in November next year. The design for the message should reflect how technology, science and society have changed since 1974. “That message was sent before we had discovered planets outside of our solar system, which happened in 1995,” says Matthew Bothwell, an outreach assistant at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. “There’s this whole field now – of exoplanets which go around stars other than the sun. If we had known that at the time, maybe we wouldn’t have sent it off into a distant star cluster.”
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In Contact, SETI research is still considered by most researchers as science fiction, not science. But during the past few years the mood has changed, with famous scientists such as the late Stephen Hawking and the Chair of the Harvard Astronomy department Avi Loeb backing the Breakthrough Listen initiative, designed to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, the $100m project is also using radio dishes around the world – including Arecibo – to capture alien transmission, much like Arroway did in Contact.
While Breakthrough Listen has cast doubts on the value of transmitting messages to lifeforms potentially more intelligent than ours, the roughly 45,000-year timescale of the original Arecibo message likely means it was always a rather symbolic gesture. But still, many consider it “the gold standard for sending a serious message to extraterrestrials,” says Doug Vakoch, head of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (METI). “It’s based on potentially universal principles of math and science — areas we’d expect any alien scientists who can pick up our signal to know about. As we move from symbolic messages to systematic efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials, there’s no need to restrict ourselves to such brief missives.”
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The new message and the competition itself is all about continuing the legacy of the original mission – to inspire younger generations and educate children on cutting-edge exoplanetary science and astronomy. “The search for aliens is something that [kids] pay attention to – it gets them interested in science,” says Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute, founded in 1984, with Carl Sagan on the board of trustees.
Kids are astronomy sponges, agrees Bothwell – as “they learn more and more, even if they don’t become astronomers, they’re becoming more scientifically literate, and that’s only a good thing.” Modern technology might help, too – the SETI Institute now has a whole host of computer programs that people – so-called citizen scientists – can use at home to help scientists sift through the huge amounts of data they collect.
While we haven’t found life beyond Earth just yet, astronomers don’t think the search will be stopping any time soon. “Greek philosophers before us were asking: ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ It’s fascinated people for as long as there have been people, so a mere 20 or 30 years without finding much won’t change that,” says Bothwell. “The search for extraterrestrials is deep within the human psyche.”
While the telescopes today aren’t necessarily much larger than in the 1960s, the receivers are much more sensitive, and it’s possible to monitor thousands of channels simultaneously, potentially speeding up the search. “There are 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, and even if one in 100 is like Earth, that leaves an awful lot of real estate for us to look at,” says Shostak.
Ellie Arroway in Contact started using a radio receiver in her bedroom when she was 10 – and this interest later led her to radio astronomy. “Anyone who’s serious about communicating with extraterrestrials needs to plan for long timescales,” says Vakoch. “Today’s youthful designers of the message could be the SETI scientists who make the first contact, decades from now.”
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