Astronomers want kids to create the message they will send into space for aliens

In 1974 on November 16, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, founder of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI, sent a radio message intended for extraterrestrials from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope of its kind at that time. The binary message was beamed to Messier 13 (M13) a cluster of an estimated 300,000 stars some 25,000 light years away.

Now, more than four decades later, a “New Arecibo Message” is being prepared, and children and students are asked to prepare what it will say. Coming up with the message has become a competition open to kindergarten students up to undergraduate students who will join teams led by scientific mentors. First, each child must crack a binary code designed from the original Arecibo message.

The competition has several goals, in addition to creating the content that could be seen by aliens who may or may not be hostile to life on Earth.

“The main goal of this activity is to educate the youth on Radio Astronomy techniques and Exoplanetary cutting-edge science, presenting the uniqueness of the Arecibo Observatory capability and raising the awareness of the possible risks involved on messaging unknown earthlings (through social media) or extraterrestrial civilizations (through radio waves).”

Arecibo staff scientist Alessandra Abe Pacini told Space.com that she believes the open and imaginative minds of children may be best suited to deliver a meaningful message to distant lifeforms.

“We are sure that the young minds around the planet will create a smart, creative and safe way to say hello to our possible galactic neighbors! Can’t wait to receive the proposals!” wrote Abe Pacini.

Abe Pacini told Vox that she believes scientists may to too narrowly focused on the details of potential messages, while kids can see the bigger picture.

“Sometimes the scientists are so focused on their topics and they can see stuff very deep but they cannot see very broad,” she said. “Students know a little bit about everything, so they can see the big picture better. For sure they can design a message that is actually much more important.”

She noted that the winning response must take into consideration the “risks of exposure” involved in sending a message to unknown alien civilizations. The message must address these risks before it will be considered for transmission. Vox noted that even Frank Drake came to regret his decision to send the first Arecibo message.

The Arecibo Observatory survived the recent disaster of Hurricane Maria, with only minor repairs needed to the 1,000-foot-wide reflector dish. The transmission of the New Arecibo Message will help the researchers raise awareness about what they continue to do on the island.

Sagan and Drake’s original message contained coded information about the existence of the human race, our average height, a basic depiction of what we look like, the structure of DNA, and where we live in the solar system.

When the message was beamed into the universe in 1974, it moved an audience to tears. However, Drake and Sagan knew that the message was largely symbolic. It would take thousands of years for any response after all.

The idea of beaming such information into space does not sit well with some people, such as the late cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who believed such a message could invite disaster from hostile alien colonists.

Although a new message could be sent out to celebrate the 45 anniversary of the first transmission, some people suggest there was a largely ignored response to the Arecibo message on August 14, 2001, when two crop circle formations appeared in a field near the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire UK.

One of the formations was a recreation of the graphic image included in the transmission, dubbed the “Arecibo answer,” only 27 years after Sagan sent the first Arecibo message. The message seems highly premature, considering that it was expected to take 25,000 light-years for the message to reach M13 unless it could have been intercepted.

There were some stunning differences in the crop circle image, including changing the dominant element in life from carbon to silicone and changing the figure of a human to one that resembles a stereotypical alien being with a large head and eyes.

For more of the differences in the Arecibo answer, see the video below:

See Frank Drake discuss why he chose to send out the Arecibo Message and what he thought of the Chilbolton crop circles below. (Hint: He thought it was a joke)


Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube

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