by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast and optimist
An abbreviated version of this article appeared on The Tompkins Weekly on April 14, 2008.
In early February, a 230-foot wide radio antenna in Madrid, Spain transmitted the Beatles song “Across the Universe” into the Milky Way galaxy, aimed specifically at Polaris, the North Star, located 431 light years from Earth. Paul McCartney approved of this event, which was handled by NASA through its Deep Space Network of radio telescopes spread across the planet. John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, considered the broadcast of this song to be “the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the Universe.”
One month later, astronomers in the United Kingdom announced they would be sending their own broadcast to the star 47 Ursae Majoris, namely an advertisement for the snack manufacturer Doritos, with more ads to follow that one to the stars.
While both of these transmissions are mainly publicity stunts – the Beatles song commemorated several simultaneous anniversaries and the Doritos ad will help the UK raise funds to save its threatened astronomy and physics programs — these actions do illuminate an important question that has been part of an increasing debate: How wise is it to announce humanity’s presence to the rest of the Universe?
The first SETI attempt, a message beamed toward M13 (the Great Cluster in Hercules) on November 16, 1974, by the Arecibo radio telescope. From left to right are numbers from one to ten, atoms including hydrogen and carbon, some interesting molecules, the DNA double helix, a human with description, basics of our Solar System, and basics of the sending telescope.
Since 1960, when the former Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted the first modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project which he named Ozma, scientists have been listening and looking for any signs of alien civilizations in our galaxy and beyond. The hope has been that — since we do not yet have interstellar vessels — someone out there is sending a deliberate radio or optical message to us, or using an omnidirectional beacon, or leaking electromagnetic signals into space just like we have been for the last century with our radio, television, and radar broadcasts.
In the nearly five decades since Drake’s Project Ozma, no definite signals of an intelligent alien origin have been found. This does not mean that ETI do not exist, but some have wondered if, in a galaxy with 400 billion stars systems stretched across 100,000 light years of space, it might help the situation to transmit messages into the Milky Way galaxy to facilitate getting the attention of any possible cosmic neighbors to encourage them to let us know they exist.
Scientists such as Drake and the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan view finding an intelligent alien civilization as a major boon to humanity in terms of vastly increasing our scientific and technological database. Other experts are rather uneasy about the prospect. They cite historical examples of what happens when an advanced culture encounters a more primitive society as reason to be very cautious about sending electromagnetic greetings into deep space. Some advocate sending no messages at all until we are more developed and better understand who and what inhabit the galaxy.
For good or ill, a few deliberate attempts have been made to signal extraterrestrial intelligences, starting with the Arecibo Message sent from the giant radio telescope to a distant globular star cluster named Messier 13 in 1974. The 1970s also witnessed the first launching of several robot probes that have left the Solar System with engraved messages for any beings who may one day find them drifting through space.
Within the last decade, Professor Alexander L. Zaitsev of the Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics at the Russian Academy of Science has emerged as a strong advocate of messaging to extraterrestrial intelligences, also known as METI. Zaitsev also orchestrated several METI projects, such as the Cosmic Calls of 1999 and 2003 and the Teen Age Message of 2001, all sent from the 230-foot wide radio telescope at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in the Ukraine. Moving at light speed (186,000 miles per second), these messages will arrive at their targeted star systems in the latter half of this century.
In a paper Zaitsev published in 2006, the scientist notes that “SETI is meaningless if no one feels the need to transmit.” Zaitsev also feels that if there are advanced cultures bent on harming humanity, they will find us eventually, so it is in our best interests to seek them out first. Zaitsev sees the great distances between stars and the physical limits imposed by attempting to attain light speed serve as a natural protective barrier for our species and any other potentially vulnerable beings in the galaxy.
Scientist and science fiction author David Brin feels that in spite of the celestial limitations noted by Zaitsev, any transmissions sent spaceward without first being discussed by a broad range of disciplines is both improperly representative of humanity and poses the danger of attracting beings that may bear us ill will.
“As newcomers in a strangely quiet Cosmos, shall we shout for attention?” asks Brin. “Or is it wiser to continue quiet listening? We propose an interdisciplinary symposium, to be the most eclectic and inclusive forum, by far, to deliberate the METI issue. It is not too much to ask that METI people hold back until the world’s open, scientific community can get a chance to examine their proposal.”
Paul Gilster of the Tau Zero Foundation (founded by Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program) that conducts research into interstellar travel, also recommends restraint. “Two aspects of METI trouble me deeply,” he says. “The first is that serious messaging has taken place without any consensus or indeed consultation here on Earth. The various signals sent from Evpatoria in the Crimea were simply announced, yet such messages have implications for our entire species and at the very least should be considered in an international, multi-discipinary forum before being sent.
“The second troubling aspect of all this is that recent messages from NASA and European sources have been treated in the press more or less as larks, the assumption being either that extraterrestrials are benign or that they do not exist in the first place. I favor a moderate, cautious approach to deliberately announcing our presence to the Universe.”
Seth Shostak, the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, is not terribly concerned about any kind of alien invasion. Like Zaitsev, Shostak agrees that a technologically sophisticated civilization could find Earth and humanity if they chose to; as one example, our military and planetary radars are among the brightest electromagnetic sources produced by our species.
As the Chair of the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Study Group, Shostak and his team have been looking into how we should respond to a message from an ETI received on Earth. Brin and others claim that the study group’s members are too narrowly focused in their representation of the sciences. Shostak maintains that in addition to their focus being on replying to a received alien transmission, the group has neither the right nor the ability to police the rest of humanity on what they broadcast — an issue that will only grow more complex as our technology becomes more sophisticated.
Personally, I am in the middle. I see the legitimate points of both sides, though I think some of our attempts at contact might be perceived as childish (or at least very basic) by any advanced ETI. Also, I wonder how many galactic cultures are similar to ours at this point in time, if any exist at all. Unless our galaxy is composed of societies and beings a lot like the ones in Star Trek, my feeling is that many of them will be either really behind us (and not even intelligent/aware at all) or so beyond us as to make communication nearly pointless.
Humanity is already sending messages into the galaxy and that is only going to increase, not diminish. So we had better deal with this, rather than hope people restrain themselves when they have the chance to broadcast a message into deep space.
Even if ETI don’t understand what we are sending them, they will likely be aware that there is some kind of intelligence on Sol 3 and may want to respond to us. We should ready ourselves for the realization that we are not on some isolated island in the middle of nowhere, but part of a much larger galactic community – even if the community is “just” a lot of star systems with no high level inhabitants – and we should start acting accordingly.
And even if no ETI ever picks up our leakage or broadcasts, our descendants will be heading out into the galaxy one day, so one way or another we will make our presence known – and that is what we need to prepare for: how alien societies, if they exist, will react to us. I think that any society, no matter how advanced now, had to develop much as we did, just as all life on this planet had to evolve and all our ancestors struggled to make it to the present. So maybe they will “get” us and at least know what we are going through, because they were once children, too.
Which begs the question, are there others out there at our level, making lots of noise into the galaxy, wondering where everybody else is? Have we just not gotten their messages yet, or have they been silenced by somebody who preys on such naive behavior? Or are we the only ones like ourselves in the galaxy?
I think we need to be brave and forge ourselves into the galaxy. If we stay at home and hide under the beds, we might live a bit longer, but we won’t evolve any.