Space | SEPTEMEBR 26, 2018
BY MATT REYNOLDS
The almighty tussle over
whether we should talk to
aliens or not
In November 1962, at a radar station overlooking the Black Sea at the western edge of Crimea, humankind sent its first message to extraterrestrials. It consisted of just three Russian words in Morse code, bounced off of Venus and ultimately headed towards HD 131336, a star almost 2,160 light years away. The first word, Mir, can be variously translated as ‘world’ or ‘peace’. The other words, Lenin, and SSSR, (the Latinised Russian acronym for the Soviet Union), were a little less ambiguous.
Unsurprisingly, we have not heard back from any extraterrestrial intelligence just yet. But since the Morse message, a handful of projects have sent messages beyond the confines of Earth. Some are ambitious attempts to condense human knowledge into a message decipherable by ET. The 1974 Arecibo message, composed by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, sent graphics of DNA, humans and the solar system to a star cluster 25,000 light years away. In 1972 the Pioneer 10 spacecraft launched, carrying with it a plaque etched with a schematic of hydrogen and the spacecraft’s trajectory around Jupiter and out of the solar system. Five years later, Voyager 1 carried its own interstellar missive, in the form of a golden record carrying images of humans, maps and music by Bach, Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry.
Other messages, if they are ever intercepted, may leave ET rather underwhelmed about the prospect of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. In 2008, Doritos beamed a 30-second advert towards a solar system in the Ursa Major constellation, just 42 light years away from Earth. Three years earlier, the online classified adverts site Craigslist sent over 100,000 posts into outer space, on the off chance that someone in a far off galaxy was in need of an IKEA Billy bookcase in perfect condition (collection only).
Amongst this hodgepodge of messages, there has never been a sustained, scientific attempt to send a message to aliens. While the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has coalesced around a handful of well-funded and significant projects, such as Breakthrough Listen at the Berkeley SETI Research Centre and the China’s FAST telescope, the scientists and amateur astronomers committed to messaging ET have mostly been left to go it alone. But why has the task of composing a message on behalf of the entire human race fallen to the handful researchers who are determined enough to push ahead with the project under their own steam? The problem, it turns out, is that no one can quite agree on the best way to message ET, or even if we should be doing it at all.
In the summer of 1997, just after finishing his dinner, Seth Shostak got the call that SETI researchers spend their lives waiting for. The SETI Institute, a not-for-profit organisation based in California that explores the origin of life in the Universe, had detected a signal from outer space directed exactly at the Earth. On the other side of the country, in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, an antenna was picking up a narrow-band signal – the kind that only transmitters can emit – that appeared to be coming from a fixed spot in space.
As Shostak, who is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, waited for his colleagues to check the signal against the frequency of known Earth satellite, conversation at the Institute turned to “the protocols”. These are a set of principles that set out what should happen if researchers detect a sign of ET from outer space. The protocols, agreed by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989, are brief – a little over 1,000 words that tell us what to do if we discover that we are no longer alone in the Universe.
There are nine parts to the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”. The first three deal with confirming that the signal is indeed a sign of extraterrestrial life and include sharing data data about the finding with the UN and a long list of arcane-sounding bodies including the International Astronautical Federation, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union.
The next few points deal with the dissemination of the announcement, which should be made “widely through scientific channels and public media”, although the discoverer has first dibs on make the announcement public. The data, too, should be made available to other scientists in papers and through conferences so that they can verify the findings themselves.
“The most important responsibility that we have as scientists that are engaging in this field is to verify and follow-up on any discovery that we make,” says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centre in California. Working out whether we should respond – and deciding what to say if we do respond – is a much bigger question, says Siemion, and one that most scientists just haven’t got around to thinking about yet.
The reason for this is simple, Siemion says. Sending messages across space takes a really, really long time. Even if we found aliens on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – the closest star to us apart from the Sun – tomorrow, it’d still take almost four-and-a-half years for a message to reach the Earth and the same time for our return message. There just wouldn’t be any need for us to have a message ready to go, Siemion says.
Which brings us to point eight of the protocols. No response should be sent, it reads, until “appropriate international consultations” have been taken place. In 2010, this section of the protocol was updated to specify the United Nations as the kind of international body that should be consulted before any response is sent. Shostak and his colleagues, however, never got this far. The message they were tracking was actually a telemetry signal from SOHO, a solar research satellite operated by Nasa and the European Space Agency.
Still, the false alarm highlighted one thing – when it comes to messaging ET back, there is no consensus on what we should do. For Siemion, that’s simply a reflection of how young the SETI movement is. Breakthrough Listen, the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial communications ever, only kicked off in January 2016 after the Israeli-Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner provided $100 million in funding for the scheme. “There is an awful lot of searching left to do,” says Siemion, who is also the principle investigator for the Breakthrough Listen project. “Before we get into the game of transmitting messages we should at least take a few years or perhaps a few decades to do a little bit of listening before we do speaking.”
In 2015, Siemion was one of 28 signatories who warned of the possible dangers involved in messaging extraterrestrial intelligence (METI). Since humans have only just acquired the capability to send interstellar messages, it’s very likely that extraterrestrial civilisations, if they exist, will be much more advanced than we are. “We know nothing of [ET’s] intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether [ET] will be benign or hostile,” wrote the authors of the letter, including Elon Musk. Stephen Hawking, too, has warned of the dangers of contacting an alien civilisation that may be much more advanced that us.
But Doug Vakoch, an astrobiologist who left the SETI Institute to set up METI International – an organisation that focuses on sending messages to outer space – isn’t convinced that messaging ET does pose that much of a risk. Television and radio broadcast already leak signals into space, and any civilisation a few hundred years or so more advanced than us is very likely to be able to detect those signals across interstellar distances, says Vakoch. “It’s not a case of making ourselves known to a civilisation for the first time, if they get our signal they have already detected our leakage.”
For Siemion, this cuts both ways. Since ET can overhear us anyway, why worry about sending a message to say hello? Would-be METI-ists might be better off picking up their phone and calling in to their local radio station, he points out. But there’s always the danger that if we do leave the extraterrestrial messaging down to a handful of renegade enthusiasts, that they might end up sending a message that doesn’t go down well with the aliens. It’s all very well sending Doritos adverts to the stars, but what if ET hates tortilla chips?
There’s also the problem of knowing what to say. The 1974 Arecibo message was remarkable for the amount of information crammed into its 210 bytes. The transmission included the numbers one to ten, the atomic numbers of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus (the components of DNA), the formula for the sugars and bases in DNA nucleotides and a graphic of the double helix structure as well as graphics of a human, the Solar System, and the Arecibo radio telescope itself.
This approach, Vakoch says, might not actually be that useful if we’re trying to start a conversation with ET. “If you try to send them everything in a very condensed message, you may end up getting nothing across,” says Vakoch. For METI International’s 2019 messages, Vakoch is planning on sending messages containing references to the periodic table. The idea being that certain elements, such as hydrogen, are abundant across the Universe so any receiving civilisation is likely to recognise a reference to the chemical signature of those elements.
Another important requirement is making sure that whoever is on the receiving end of the message knows what they’re tuning into, says Jacob Haqq-Misra, a researcher at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. “The basic idea is to define some sort of mathematical language,” he says. Initial messages might establish some basics. One is not equal to zero, but one is equal to one, for example. “And now we’ve established a common language, we can talk about physics with each other.”
In 2013, Haqq-Misra was involved in a short-lived project called Lone Signal that aimed to use a network of dishes to let people on Earth beam their own messages into space. The project, co-funded by the French cosmetics executive Pierre Fabre and the fashion photographer Greg Kadel fell apart after only transmitting for a short while.
“Their idea was you have this big celebrity launch party and it takes over the world,” Haqq-Misra says. “That was not what happened.” It costs thousands of dollars just to power a radio transmitter for a few hours, and Lone Signal just didn’t have the funds to make it happen. Not long after the glitzy launch party, the money ran out completely. The lack of funding into METI means that Haqq-Misra and many others like him now only dabble in METI alongside full time jobs, often elsewhere in research.
But for people like Haqq-Misra and Vakoch, the pull of METI remains palpable. While researchers are no closer to reaching a consensus on whether we should be messaging ET or not, Vakoch is already thinking about the messages he’ll be helping to send in 2019. The potentials gains from doing so, he says, are just too big to ignore. “This finally holds a mirror up to ourselves by another form of intelligence,” he says. “We just have an opportunity to reflect on ourselves differently.”
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