SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — An ambitious new effort is underway to make direct contact with intelligent life beyond earth, improving upon 70s-era space missions which included attempts to bring messages from Earth to extraterrestrials.
For centuries, we’ve gazed up at the stars, and wondered are we alone? Some say it is time to move more aggressively and find out.
In early April, NASA’s newest planet hunter called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) discovered its first Earth-sized alien planet. A recent survey by Glocalities involving 24 countries found nearly half of all humans believe in extraterrestrials.
ETs are on our mind. At the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, an entire evening’s event was all about extraterrestrials. A special dance troupe performed to an eclectic mix of sounds. The sounds were excerpts taken from a famous golden record, intended for intelligent life in the universe. The 12-inch copper gold plated disk is known as the Pioneer Golden Record.
Artist Katerina Wong choreographed the performance and was thrilled to know its history.
“They were hoping if there was an opportunity to meet an ET, that they would get a little bit of understanding about what life on earth was like.” remarked Wong.
On each copy were dozens of images, sounds from nature, and multiple greetings in 55 different languages. The record also contained music from around the world, and included classical as well as a recording of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode.”
According to NASA, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Their primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn in our own solar system but now, both probes are billions of miles away from earth – carrying a message from earth on these golden records. The hope was that somewhere beyond our solar system, intelligent life or advanced civilizations will find them and be able to decipher their contents.
“This was a way of telling another civilization about us,” explained the legendary astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake.
Drake is a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial life. He, along with the help of fellow astronomer and astrophysicist the late Carl Sagan, wrote what’s known as the Arecibo Message. This was the first intentional interstellar radio message sent from earth to a globular star cluster known as M13 in hopes that extraterrestrial intelligence could receive and decipher it.
The message was broadcast into space a single time in 1974, at a ceremony at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The message lasted three minutes. It was the most powerful radio message every sent into deep space. According to the SETI Institute, the broadcast was particularly powerful, because it “concentrated the transmitter energy by beaming it into a very small patch of sky.”
“It only has 1,273 characters, so it’s very short and yet it describes the basic chemical makeup of the DNA molecule which is the key to the behavior and activities on earth,” noted Drake.
Drake also helped Sagan design what is known as the Pioneer plaques. These plaques were another kind of message from earth that scientists hoped would be intercepted by extraterrestrial beings. They were placed on board the 1972 Pioneer 10 and the 1973 Pioneer 11 spacecraft.
Now in 2019, there is an intensified push to update the message.
“We can do more than just gaze at the stars.” remarked Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who along with his wife, Julia, in 2015 unveiled a project called the Breakthrough Initiatives to search for extraterrestrial intelligence over the span of at least 10 years.
Part of the Initiatives program includes a $1,000,000 Breakthrough Message competition, where the task is to design a digital message to send to advanced civilizations.
Those behind the competition say for the moment there are no plans to send these messages. Even so, there are those who don’t want to wait. They want to send messages now, and hear back from other civilizations.
“We want to get their reply” stated astrobiologist Doug Vakoch who heads up: Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), a non-profit which seeks to send “information-rich” signals to nearby stars to evoke a response.
“It’s a message written in a language of math and science,” said Vakoch. He explained that the messages would be sent by radio or in the near future, by lasers using very brief laser pulses. Unlike the Voyager golden record which contains a virtual encyclopedia of information about earth, METI message will focus on one topic at a time, but each message will be repeated multiple times over the course of days, weeks, and months.
Vakoch explained to KPIX 5 that METI is an offshoot of SETI – search for extraterrestrial intelligence – but that his group is reversing the process.
“Instead of listening for signals from another civilization, we are sending message out,” noted Vakoch.
Vakoch said that METI is testing an explanation for why advanced life forms have not yet contacted Earth. The explanation is known as the Zoo Hypothesis.
“Maybe the extraterrestrials are looking at us like we look at animals in a zoo, But what if we go to the zoo, and one of those zebras turns towards us and starts pounding out a series of prime numbers?” asked Vakoch.
Not everyone agrees we should go warp-speed with rapidly concocting and sending messages.
“I’ve seen Mars Attacks and that ended horribly! So I don’t know.” laughed Alicia Adams who was stargazing on the roof of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
“I think it’s a scary concept of actually letting people whom we don’t know, or things we don’t know, know we’re here,” said Grainne Barron who was visiting from Ireland.
Retired Professor of Astronomy Andrew Fraknoi says it’s a question over which space scientists are now grappling.
“If we’re going to be deciding to advertise our presence to the universe, we should have a discussion with the rest of the world,” said Fraknoi.
Fraknoi explained how some scientists believe we should just passively listen in on the universe rather than blabber about Planet Earth out in space.
“Are we ready to signal out there that we on earth exist? We are barely getting along with each other. Are we ready to get along with aliens?” commented Fraknoi.
As for Dr. Drake, he doesn’t believe Planet Earth needs a new message. Thanks to television and radio signals traveling in space ever since we’ve been broadcasting, Drake thinks intelligent beings already know we’re here.
“It’s too late, folks. We’ve made our presence known big-time,” said Drake.