This Monday, October 10, at exactly 8 p.m. Universal time (4 p.m. U.S. Eastern time), an interstellar transmission put together by the nonprofit group A Simple Response is scheduled to be sent in the direction of the North Star (Polaris), using the European Space Agency’s deep space antenna at the Cebreros ground station in Spain. The transmission will encode 3,775 messages submitted by people from 146 countries, and will be the first such message sent to deep space in several years.
The North Star seems an odd target, although this won’t be the first message sent its way (the Beatles song “Across the Universe” was beamed there in 2008). Polaris is a yellow supergiant about 433 light years from Earth, and it is difficult to imagine any potentially habitable planet in its vicinity. Why not choose, for example, the much closer Proxima b?
One might also wonder how an alien civilization, if it’s able to intercept the radioed message, would decipher it, since it includes so many different languages. The organizers chose Polaris because it has served for centuries as a beacon for sailors in the northern hemisphere to find their way home. So this particular effort appears to be more symbolic than a serious attempt to contact an alien civilization.
Sending out interstellar messages continues to be highly controversial. Several prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have warned that we might just be inviting an alien invasion. In a recent correspondence published in Nature Physics, Doug Vakoch of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) argues in favor of sending, and not letting our fear get the better of us. He reasons that even a slightly advanced ET civilization would already know of our existence through TV and other emissions that have been leaking into space for decades. If we’re in danger of an invasion, he says, it’s already too late. They know where we are.
Vakoch argues that human nature tends to overrate fear and underrate the potential benefit of a contact. Altruistic aliens might, for example, be able to help guide us on a path to environmental sustainability, and by reaching out to them we may actually avoid our own annihilation. While I agree with the point about fear, I also think it is human nature that we don’t want to be told what to do, even by enlightened aliens. If we’re to live up to our name, Homo sapiens sapiens, we will have to figure out sustainability for ourselves (in fact, some already have, and the question now is whether they can convince politicians and the broad public).
Also, if we do send out messages, they should be drafted to be as clear and understandable to potential alien listeners as possible (which is challenging enough), not confusing, like next week’s planned transmission.
Vakoch is correct that there should be international protocols established for interstellar communication, including simple messages like the one planned for Monday. And he is right to be frustrated that there has been no progress in this regard. However, I don’t think this is a matter to be settled by scientific peer review. The repercussions of sending a message and possibly getting a response—or even an alien visit—are just too great for this to be decided by a small group of scientists alone.
Personally I’m skeptical of the merits of sending a transmission into space without knowing who or what we’re inviting, although I would like to hear readers’ opinions. Either way, projects like A Simple Response seem likely to continue, so we should be prepared if we do actually receive a response. Miscommunication could be tragic, as in this old episode of The Twilight Zone: