NASA wants to pass on humanity’s greatest secrets to extraterrestrials
- NASA scientists are rewriting Voyager’s iconic message for the 21st century.
- The message would be broadcast from China’s massive FAST radio telescope.
- Its content includes the basics of mathematics and the building blocks of human life.
NASA scientists have developed a whole new way to send messages into space. The goal, according to the new research, is to broadcast humanity’s special signature to anyone (something?) who can listen.
The article, which has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, envisions this message as a replacement for an iconic 1974 broadcast of similar material from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was taken out of service following a 2020 collapse. A new message is said to be broadcast from China as well as northern California, and the researchers have carefully selected a part of the Milky Way that they believe is most likely to contain intelligent life receptive to the message.
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The Arecibo Observatory made world news when it partially collapsed in 2020. The iconic telescope at the center of the observatory complex was built over a natural sinkhole which provided a curved surface, and during more than 50 years it was the largest telescope in the world. world. It therefore made sense that an interstellar message would be transmitted from the observatory in 1974. By the time Arecibo was decommissioned in 2020, the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China had already replaced it as the world. largest telescope. FAST was also built in a natural basin in Guizhou Province in southern China, not far from the border with Vietnam.
“FAST’s illuminated aperture is 300 m, and its overall performance and sensitivity are many times better than Arecibo and other existing radio telescopes,” the researchers explain in their paper. Sounds good, but right now FAST is a “receive only” radio telescope, which means it can’t send messages even if we wanted to. But the researchers express hope that FAST, along with the network of SETI listening telescopes in northern California, could be equipped to deliver a message. “Both may possibly be upgraded with future enhancements that will also enable message passing,” the researchers explain.
It is this assumption that scientists want to assume – in a sense, they are preparing a statement before the event that could justify it. One criticism they have of the 1974 broadcast and subsequent Voyager “gold record” which shared similar data is that they think the footage is a waste of space in that context. This may sound disappointing, but their reasoning is sound: even images of just 128 x 128 pixels require over 16,000 individual bits to be transmitted, and “whether humanity received a message containing these representations, it is unclear that we would understand what they meant. The results aren’t worth the effort, basically.
In contrast, scientists believe that “binary is probably universal throughout intelligence”, making it a great way to communicate mathematical ideas that are also more likely to be relatable, even if cultural markers are vastly different. among an alien audience. They even include a binary explainer of the base 10 mathematical system used by humans, i.e. the countable digits from zero to nine that increment in groups of tens, hundreds, etc. We also need to include units of measurement for different scientific ideas, such as, scientists suggest, the electrochemical signature of the element hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe.
The message these scientists describe includes a quick and crude primer on the nature of human life itself, from the four basic chemicals of DNA – adenosine, cytidine, guanosine and thymidine – to amino acids essentials and glucose that help sustain life. himself. And there are other logistical issues, like including some sort of timestamp of when the message was sent from Earth, essential for calculating distance and elapsed time, as well as a way to find Earth in the background of the Milky Way galaxy.
From there, the scientists detail the best date and time to send such a message, including the angle of the sun that will least disrupt the broadcast as well as the best time for Earth’s atmosphere. “It is calculated that the dates when the Earth-Sun-ETI target region will reach this relative position of 90° are around March 30 and October 4 of each year, and the right ascension of the observing target must reach -80.5°, the center time is 07:05 and 18:41 on the corresponding dates, Beijing local time,” the researchers explain.
It all sounds pretty solid, pun intended. It’s cool to want to talk to other civilizations, and it’s cool that these scientists are basically reiterating and improving the messages sent decades ago to try to salute those civilizations. But there is a potential downside to being too transparent with our galactic neighbors. Some experts have speculated for decades that we might not want their attention at all, which they believe might explain why we’ve never heard of another civilization ourselves. They might all stay silent on purpose.
If whoever’s out there is an enemy waiting, then what we’re doing is akin to, say, handing our exact locations and special vulnerabilities to the Nazis just before the Battle of the Bulge. Other civilizations may have picked up snippets of strange radio waves and other transmissions bouncing through space, but with specific points of reference for things like base 10 math and the building blocks of human life, you could say we’re doing intergalactic IMT without a guarantee that whoever’s listening is really a friend.
But that’s all for some future people to argue about once FAST or SETI telescopes are outfitted to broadcast. (And for decades the same debate has raged within SETI itself – whether to listen only or listen as well as to transmit.) In the meantime, it makes perfect sense to write a version of the post and offer it to the scientific community to discuss exactly those pros and cons. What do you think is the key for humanity to transmit in space? Would you stay with the old Gilligan’s Island scripts from the airwaves of television, or would you give the keys to life itself?
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