(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have developed a new message for all sentient beings that might be out there. And they want to hear opinions on whether or not to submit it.
The technology needed to send a message is not yet ready. And once the note is delivered, it will take thousands of years for it to reach its destination.
In other words, no one expects a return message from aliens in the near future. But the researchers who created the note hope their ideas will open up a dialogue about how to contact aliens and what to say – and how to immortalize humanity as a species.
We want to send a message in a bottle into the ocean of space to say, “Hey, we’re here,” said Jonathan Jiang, an astrophysicist at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, “even if we’re not here a few years from now.”
The message developed by Jiang and his team is based on previous messages that humanity has sent into space; in fact, the researchers timed the creation of the new message to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Arecibo message, the first powerful attempt to contact aliens.
That 1974 message used a binary code and transmitted information about the base-10 number system of mankind, common important elements and a map of the solar system.
The new message, described in an article published in the arXiv preprint database, also encodes information in binary code and describes the basic mathematics, physics and biology necessary for aliens to understand humans, including a description of DNA, amino acids and glucose.
It will also contain a map of the Milky Way, the solar system, and the Earth itself, including information about the planet’s composition and atmosphere.
The Message is more advanced than its predecessors in several key ways. First, the map of Earth’s location in the Milky Way is more accurate than the map in the Arecibo report. In that post, scientists tried to use the positions of spinning stars, called pulsars, as pointers to determine the Earth’s location.
But the position of pulsars is not stable enough for long periods of time, and these stars are not easily distinguished from each other in the vastness of the Galaxy.
Instead, Jiang and his team used globular star clusters in the Milky Way as landmarks on their proposed map. These spherical clusters of stars are bright and easy to see, and they have enough distinctive features to serve as useful pointers.
The researchers also included a first-of-its-kind time stamp so that any alien who intercepts a message will know when it was sent. But how to convey the time to an unknown alien civilization, whose methods of measuring time can be very different from those on Earth?
The answer, according to one of the authors of the message, Qitian Jin from the Hanse University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, lies in the hydrogen atom. Neutral hydrogen contained in interstellar gas can go into a high-energy state after collisions with other atoms or electrons.
After about 10 million years, one of these high-energy hydrogens transitions back to a lower-energy state, an event called a spin-flip transition. This spin-flip transition provides a convenient universal unit of time for conveying information about how long after the Big Bang a message was sent.
“I think this is very important because if you think of it as a time capsule, when someone receives a message, they know when it was sent,” Jin said. “So they can know our history. They can develop it.”
Jin added that multiple messages could be sent with updated timestamps and information so that a theoretical alien civilization could learn more about Earth over time.
Sending and receiving
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) can be roughly divided into two methods: passive and active. In passive SETI, scientists use massive telescopes to listen or look for clues to the existence of intelligent life. Such hints can be radio waves, accidentally or intentionally sent by an alien civilization.
Active SETI involves sending signals. Such attempts are much rarer, and most of them so far have been largely symbolic.
In 1972 and 1973, the Pioneer spacecraft were launched with a pair of plaques featuring a line drawing of a man and a woman and symbols to show the spacecraft’s origins. These tablets were humanity’s first message to travel outside the solar system, but the chances of finding them in the vastness of space are negligible.
In 1977, NASA launched a similar long-running attempt on the Voyager spacecraft, the Golden Record. The recording contains music, animal sounds and spoken greetings in 55 languages.
It was developed by a committee led by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan and is the inspiration for the current research team, says Kristen Fahey, science systems engineer at JPL and one of the developers of the new message.
“It was a great honor for me to continue this business,” Fahey said in an interview. The new message includes a line drawing of a man and a woman, similar to those on the Pioneer plates, but with a more egalitarian slant: While in the 1970s version only the man raised his hand in greeting, in the modern illustration the man also ,
Arecibo’s message, unlike Pioneer and Voyager, was earthly. It was sent towards the globular star cluster M13 in 1974 from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, mostly as a token effort.
This message is still on the way to its intended goal; given that M13 is 25,000 light-years away, it has traveled only about 0.2% of the distance it needs to travel, Jiang and colleagues write in their paper.
The new proposed message would target a ring of stars located about 13,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way, Jiang said. According to him, it is believed that in this region there are many planets in habitable zones of their stars.
“If aliens exist, then most likely they are there,”
The Arecibo telescope no longer exists; it collapsed in 2020 and was later demolished. The most likely telescopes capable of relaying the message are the 500m aperture spherical radio telescope in Guizhou, China, also known as the Tianyang Telescope, and the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, which was designed to search for extraterrestrial signals.
Right now, none of the telescopes can transmit messages – they can only receive them, but the transmission capability may be added in future updates, Jiang said.
The researchers hope to spark a conversation about what information should be sent to aliens and revive interest in finding messages. According to the Planetary Society, humans are already transmitting radio, television and radar signals into space – a communication bubble that likely spans about 200 light-years.
It’s not very far – but the bubble will continue to grow and the impression humanity is making may not be the best, says Stuart Taylor, an astrophysicist at the SETI Institute who helped write the new report.
“Perhaps it would be better, since they will listen to us anyway, to send a positive message,” Taylor said. The hope, he said, is that an alien civilization advanced enough to reach the stars will be highly cooperative and give earthlings good advice on how to reconcile our differences, Taylor said.
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