“Even if the aliens are short, dour and sexually obsessed,” the late cosmologist Carl Sagan once mused, “if they’re here, I want to know about them.”
Driven by the same mindset, a Nasa-led team of international scientists has developed a new message that it proposes to beam across the galaxy in the hope of making first contact with intelligent extraterrestrials.
The interstellar missive, known as the Beacon in the Galaxy, opens with simple principles for communication, some basic concepts in maths and physics, the constituents of DNA, and closes with information about humans, the Earth, and a return address should any distant recipients be minded to reply.
The group of researchers, headed by Dr Jonathan Jiang at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, says that with technical upgrades the binary message could be broadcast into the heart of the Milky Way by the Seti Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in California and the 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in China.
In a preliminary paper, which has not been peer reviewed, the scientists recommend sending the message to a dense ring of stars near the centre of the Milky Way – a region deemed most promising for life to have emerged. “Humanity has, we contend, a compelling story to share and the desire to know of others – and now has the means to do so,” the scientists write.
The message, if it ever leaves Earth, would not be the first. The Beacon in the Galaxy is loosely based on the Arecibo message sent in 1974 from an observatory of the same name in Puerto Rico. That targeted a cluster of stars about 25,000 light years away, so it will not arrive any time soon. Since then, a host of messages have been beamed into the heavens including an advert for Doritos and an invitation, written in Klingon, to a Klingon Opera in The Hague.
Such attempts at interstellar communication are not straightforward. The odds of an intelligent civilisation intercepting a message may be extremely low, and even if contact were made, establishing a fruitful conversation could prove frustrating when a response can take tens of thousands of years. Aliens may not even understand the signal: as a test run for the Arecibo message, Frank Drake, its designer, posted the missive to some scientific colleagues, including a number of Nobel laureates. None of them understood it.
There are other concerns, too. More than a decade ago, Prof Stephen Hawking warned that humans should refrain from sending messages into space in case they attract the wrong sort of attention. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he told a Discovery channel documentary.
But Dr Jiang and his colleagues argue that an alien species capable of communication across the cosmos may well have learned the value of peace and collaboration, and humanity could have much to learn from them. “We believe the advancements of science that can be achieved in pursuit of this task, if communication were to be established, would vastly outweigh the concerns,” they write.
Dr Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “My view is that the overall risk and benefit of sending messages are both small; it is better and safer for us to move out into space and hopefully, eventually, find neighbours when we are both adult species.”
But he said it was worthwhile to think over how we may communicate with aliens. “I think it is something we should regard as training for learning to coordinate better as a species,” he added.