Scientists Want to Send Aliens an Updated Message

In 1974, NASA sent an unusual message a long way into space. Scientists transmitted a picture message towards the globular star cluster Messier 13, located near the edge of the Milky Way. Its target: possible intelligent alien life. It’s contents: information on mankind and our home planet Earth. None of us will ever know whether or not an extraterrestrial civilization will get it, though. That first-ever interstellar radio message, sent with the Arecibo telescope, will take 25,000 light-years to arrive. Even worse, however, is what might happen if an alien does get it. There’s no guarantee they’ll understand it. The message wasn’t exactly projected in high-definition. Obviously it would be a big waste if the whole endeavor ended with a confused alien shrug. This is why scientists want to try sending it again, with a much sharper message with even more info.

And this version of the colorful Arecibo message features instructions on how to call back.

A colorful coded intergalactic message known as the Arecibo Message
Arne Nordmann/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The binary-encoded message scientists sent out on November 16, 1974, is not what you’d expect from an intergalactic transmission. It looks less like something the world’s greatest minds created and more like a poster for an Aqua Teen Hunger Force Mooninites movie. But there’s a whole lot of information conveyed by those colorful bits. It’s written in a scientific language meant to transcend Earthly communication.

From the SETI Institute:

The message consists of 1679 bits, arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters per line (these are both prime numbers, and may help the aliens decode the message). The “ones” and “zeroes” were transmitted by frequency shifting at the rate of 10 bits per second. The total broadcast was less than three minutes.

It consists, among other things, of the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life. Although it’s unlikely that this short inquiry will ever prompt a reply, the experiment was useful in getting us to think a bit about the difficulties of communicating across space, time, and a presumably wide culture gap.

Jodie Foster in a green t-shirt listens to headphones near a computer in Contact
Warner Bros.

Now a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory want to send out an updated message. One that is clearer and, hopefully, easier to decipher. The JPL researchers outlined their plans in a paper published at arXiv (which we first learned about at DesignTAXI). The new Arecibo Message would still use a binary-code. But this version would contain more information about who we are and where we come from. That update would even include a map to find us.

Don’t worry about an alien invasion, though. The goal is to send the aliens their message in 2024. And by the time they get it, tens of thousand of light years from now, mankind might not even be on Earth anymore.

Good thing we’ll definitely know how to leave a note behind saying where we went.

Top Stories
Trending Topics