Attempts to communicate with aliens have gotten a lot more technologically advanced than the famous Carl Sagan Pioneer plaques that feature drawings of a naked man and woman on the Pioneer spaceships.
This week, researchers in the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence group, or METI, led by Douglas Vakoch a former SETI scientist, are working to create messages to aliens that are more universal. Since 1972, we’ve been trying to tell aliens that we’re here despite anxieties that announcing our presence could lead to an alien attack. Messages in the past have relied heavily on aliens having the same kinds of visual abilities as people do, which limits the potential effectiveness of the messages. METI’s more universal messages are intended to be sent out in 2018.
On November 16, 1974 the first intentional radio message to aliens was sent towards the Messier 13 star cluster, about 22,200 light years away from Earth. Called the Arecibo message, Frank Drake used radio pulses in order to build a grid of 73 rows by 23 columns that would form an image by turning the radio on and off in order to draw. Although more directed than the Pioneer plaques, communication with aliens still depended a lot on the aliens reading it being vision-based, like people are.
But if aliens aren’t vision based, another kind of message might be necessary. Building a radio message using the length of duration of pulses as the way to build information is one possible method. The pulses slowly build a dictionary that starts with numbers, into mathematical symbols, and then uses those to build words starting with measurements of time. Called Lincos, it’s a language that uses an experience of time to understand what we’re trying to say, instead of a visual system. It’s a simple solution that could encode enough information to communicate with aliens, Vakoch told The New York Times on Wednesday.
Other options METI is considering include just sending the entire content of the internet out towards planets we think might contain life. The idea there is that aliens, like a neural net or machine learning program, will be able to use all that data to find a way to communicate with us.
Sending a message to aliens is a scenario that maybe people, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, think is overly risky and could lead to aliens deciding to wipe us out. But we don’t know what will happen, or if aliens exist at all, so METI is going ahead and trying something new.