NASA scientists have a new message for extraterrestrials

It's time for an update.
Chris Young
The Allen Telescope Array.SETI

How can we communicate with extraterrestrials?

A team of international researchers led by Jonathan Jiang of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has set out to answer that very question, according to a report from Scientific American.

Though we are yet to find extraterrestrial life, the search is heating up thanks to projects such as China's FAST Telescope and NASA's James Webb.

With this in mind, Jiang's team at NASA outlined a new design for a message aimed at intelligent alien life forms in a new paper published in the preprint server arXiv.org. Their design is presented as an update to the interstellar Arecibo message of 1974.

"Beacon in the Galaxy"

The 13-page paper, titled "Beacon in the Galaxy" is a basic introduction to mathematics, chemistry, and biology as understood by humans. The paper is strongly inspired by the work that went into the 1974 Arecibo message, a high-profile attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials via an interstellar radio message.

In their new paper, Jiang's team included details such as the best time of year to broadcast their message and potential targets for their message, including a dense ring of stars near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. One important detail that this message also adds is a return address that should allow any receiver to pinpoint the exact location of Earth and send back their own message. Let's just hope that message isn't picked up by an intelligent species capable of destroying solar systems with a weaponized "domain wall".

"The motivation for the design was to deliver the maximum amount of information about our society and the human species in the minimal amount of message," Jiang explains. "With improvements in digital technology, we can do much better than the [Arecibo message] in 1974."

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How will aliens understand the new message?

Anyone who's seen the brilliant sci-fi movie 'Arrival' will know that one of the first ports of call for officials following any communication with an extraterrestrial species would be to find a world-class linguist to help try to decipher their language and enable communication.

In a reversal of the idea presented in that movie, the NASA researchers set out to make their message as easy to decipher as possible for a hypothetical extraterrestrial intelligence that has no concept of our language or our numerical systems, which evolved arbitrarily due to cultural influences throughout the history of humanity. That's why they decided to present their message as a bitmap, a medium that uses binary code to create a pixelated image. The 1974 Arecibo message also used a bitmap image to present its message in the most simple way possible.

"One of the key ideas is that, because vision has evolved independently many times on Earth, that means aliens will have it, too," says Douglas Vakoch, president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, a nonprofit devoted to researching how to communicate with other life-forms.

The new "Beacon in the Galaxy" message also borrows from another similar project called Cosmic Call, which was broadcast from the Yevpatoriaradio telescope in Ukraine in 2003. That message featured a custom bitmap "alphabet" that uses the spin-flip transition of a hydrogen atom to connote the idea of time, before marking the date on which the transmission was sent from Earth. The message composed by Jiang's team also features a sketch of a male and female human, as well as a map of Earth's surface and its location in the galaxy.

Jian and his team propose sending their message from either the Allen Telescope Array in northern California or the Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China. However, both of those would have to be retrofitted with equipment that would allow them to transmit signals as they currently only have the capacity to observe the cosmos. If Jiang and his team do get the chance to get their message out there, humanity will blast another message out into space in the hope that aliens could detect our signal, though it may be many years from now. 

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