Messages in Space


E.T., do you read us ?

"We flew on through the starry wildernesses: one heaven after another unfurled its immeasurable banners before us and then rolled up behind us, galaxy behind galaxy... ...And I said to the Form at my side: '...Has this Universe no end?' And the Form answered and said, '...it has no beginning...'" - from Paul Richter's Dream of the Universe

Hmmm... Those two must know nothing about the physical laws of the Universe. "Thou shalt not travel faster than the speed of Light."

Saying that the Universe, even the known Universe, is an awfully big place, is a ridiculous and outrageous understatement. Trying to see it, hear it, measure it, or talk to it, is a task not too many have the courage to take on.

But astronomers, especially radio astronomers, are nothing if not courageous. Thirty Eight years ago...(November 16th, 1974) they beamed up a 3-minute radio message about the planet Earth to a globular cluster of stars in Hercules, on the theory that 300,000 closely packed stars would increase the chances that Earth's signal might be detected by other courageous intelligent life near one of them. There will be no chance at conversation. It would take the radio signals, travelling at the speed of light, 50,000 years to make a round trip journey. The Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter. The known Universe extends outwards to about 15 billion light years. These astronomers will not receive any returned calls in their lifetime(s).

The November experiment was Earth's first purposeful message to outer space. Unfortunately, travelling outward only at the speed of light (about 186,000 miles per second) is a mere donkey's stroll given the immense distances out there. Our message has hardly gotten off the front porch. It will still be 34,000 years before anyone, or thing, in the vicinity of M13 sees our Sun's radio brightness increase for a brief 3 minutes. I sure hope someone will be watching.

Homo Sapiens have been around for a few hundred thousand years. Late-comers on a cosmic scale. We took our sweet time about getting fire sorted out, inventing the wheel, and finally finding the means by which we might converse with our cosmic neighbors.

Perhaps there's someone else out there who's been in the business a bit longer. It sort of makes sense at this point to spend our time, energy and money listening. Since 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, a dedicated group of scientists at NASA will begin a 10 year search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence using a radio spectrum analyzer that will tune it to 10 million radio channels simultaneously.

But the Earth is still a noisy little planet, and we do stand the chance of being detected by others. I

t turns out that the Air Force's Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, and the Navy's own Space Surveillance System are incredibly noisy - probably visible tens of light years away. So there you have it. As pioneer radio astronomer Frank Drake said, "Peace on Earth is the biggest threat to others hearing us." And as you know, we haven't learned yet to abide with each other peaceably as a species.

So, listen up out there!


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