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A new message to the stars? Beacon in the Galaxy

Message to the stars: Three blue squares with figures of helixes, people and the solar system.
Look familiar? We’ve sent these pictures to the stars before. Now, once again, scientists want to broadcast our human presence out into the galaxy. Here are 3 parts of the 13-part message. Left, representations of DNA. Middle, human figures. Right, our solar system. Scientists are calling their proposed message to the stars a Beacon in the Galaxy. Image via arXiv.

A international team of scientists has studied the possibility of broadcasting a new message outward, aimed at any extraterrestrial life that might be listening. They’re calling it a Beacon in the Galaxy. The scientists’ study – dated April 2, 2022 – is awaiting peer review. But you can read it on Arxiv. These scientists propose sending this message in binary code via radio waves toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

The message would contain math, physics and depictions of human figures and our DNA. In addition, it would also include a road map through the galaxy to Earth.

Do you like this idea? Or no? Tell us in the comments below.

Not our first message to the stars

If it happens, it won’t be our first message to the stars. In 1974, astronomers used the Arecibo radio telescope to beam a message into space. They sent it toward the globular cluster M13, 25,000 light-years away. In this case, the Arecibo message relayed our base-10 number scheme and a portrayal of our solar system.

Then, in the late 1970s, Pioneer 10 and 11 carried plaques showing male and female human figures and a sort of map to Earth. Then, in the late 70s, the Voyager spacecraft carried records containing sounds from Earth.

Of course, all Earth’s radio waves have been traveling out into space for some 100 years. Even so, the expanse of space these message have reached is small. Indeed, it’s a reminder of just how big space is.

Drawing on the history of humans’ attempts to communicate since the beginning of civilization, the scientists said they see this message as a next step. They imagined early humans looking upward, wondering if there were lifeforms beyond the world they knew. Now we have radio telescopes that can – if we want – beam our messages to the stars.

Now, we have the technology to attempt to communicate with worlds beyond our own. The question of whether we should remains unanswered.

Representation of Milky Way from above with inset and small blue dot.
View larger. | Earth, in one of the arms of the Milky Way galaxy, has been sending radio signals into space for 100-some years. The blue dot in the inset represents the area where these radio waves have already reached. Image via The Planetary Society.

How they’d send a message to the stars

The scientists see two possible telescopes that would be right for the job of sending a message to aliens. First, there is China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. Second, there is the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array. At the moment, both these telescopes can currently receive signals from space only. However, future upgrades might allow them to send messages.

Because of the collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope in 2020, it is, sadly, no longer an option.

The scientists would aim their message toward the most likely area in the Milky Way containing intelligent life. Their new study suggests a star cluster between 6,500 and 19,500 light-years (2 kiloparsecs and 6 kiloparsecs) from the center of our Milky Way galaxy as an intended destination.

What would we say?

So the idea of a Beacon in the Galaxy sort of message is pretty simple. It’d be beamed in radio waves and coded in binary. Like the scientists who came before them, these scientists think our best shot at communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences would be to focus on mathematics and physics. Human culture and language, while important to who we are as humans and how we relate to one another, might be difficult for alien intelligences to interpret.

These scientists said that sending a code in binary would be universal across all intelligence. As the paper said:

Binary is the simplest form of mathematics as it involves only two opposing states: zero and one, yes or no, black or white, mass or empty space.

Specifically, the message would include the following:

    – our binary and decimal systems, prime numbers including the largest prime number
    – mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)
    – exponential operations
    – algebra
    – particle physics
    – the most common elements (hydrogen, helium, carbon, etc.)
    – DNA structures
    – human forms
    – our solar system’s position using globular clusters
    – depiction of the solar system pointing out Earth
    – map of Earth
    – composition and characteristics of Earth
    – an invitation to return a reply

Additionally, the message even includes a timestamp indicating when we sent the message into space based on a timeline originating with the Big Bang.

Should we try to communicate with aliens?

Most who believe we shouldn’t broadcast messages of our existence and whereabouts into space have the following reason: that aliens could then visit us and do us harm. A common rebuttal to this argument – mentioned in the new study – is that a species advanced enough to receive our message should have mastered cooperation, peace and collaboration.

So could we, on Earth, receive and interpret a message – like that these scientists propose to send – from an alien civization? Some earthly scientists are engaged in projects to listen for such messages. But have we on Earth mastered “cooperation, peace and collaboration?” Of course not. Still, if we – with our current technology – received such a message from thousands of light-years away … there wouldn’t be much we could do about it. We couldn’t mount an expedition to visit the senders, in another part of the galaxy. We could only answer … and wait thousands more years for our message to travel back to the senders.

So, yes, these scientists are aiming their message at a civilization more advanced than ours. They said their intended alien receivers would already have safely passed through the Great Filter of self-destruction. And, as the scientists said in the paper:

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 presented above.

In other words, they believe they’d learn some things in trying to organize and send the message.

And – like earthly scientists before them, including the late astronomer and educator Carl Sagan, who helped spearhead the Voyager messages – they think sending the message would help us earthlings think beyond ourselves.

Bottom line: Scientists are proposing a new message to the stars. Like others before them, they’d send a message in radio waves and binary code of math, physics, our DNA, solar system and more.

Source: A Beacon in the Galaxy: Updated Arecibo Message for Potential FAST and SETI Projects

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