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Scientists create maths message for aliens with directions to Earth

Madeleine Bower, April 27, 2022 7:00PM Kids News

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Swinburne University astronomer and director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute, Associate Professor Alan Duffy said the new message would advance previous efforts to contact extraterrestrial life. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian media_cameraSwinburne University astronomer and director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute, Associate Professor Alan Duffy said the new message would advance previous efforts to contact extraterrestrial life. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian

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Scientists are working on a new message to send out into the stars to let aliens know where we are.

Named “the Beacon in the Galaxy” (BITG), the proposed message would not be the first humans have sent into space, but it would have more information on our species than any that have gone before, including directions on how to find us.

Swinburne University astronomer and director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute, Associate Professor Alan Duffy said that the new message would advance previous efforts to contact extraterrestrial* life.

media_cameraAssociate Professor Alan Duffy said the information in the message would be reasonably easy for aliens to decipher. Picture: ABC TV

“It’s going to be a more powerful telescope or, in fact, two telescopes that will send the signal,” he said.

“We think it’s a clever message that comes with more information and still should be reasonably easy to decipher. It’s also being sent towards a target that, we have reason to hope at least, may have aliens.”

If scientists decide to go ahead with sending the message into space, it would be sent from both the 500m Aperture* Spherical* Radio Telescope in China and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in northern California in the US.

The transmission* would be targeted at a select region in the Milky Way galaxy, which has been suggested as the most likely location for life to have developed.

“It’s towards the centre of our galaxy and it’s a dense collection of stars where we think that they’ve had a longer time to have potential life,” Professor Duffy said.

“That denser number of stars means there’s more potential places for life to arrive, but also the fact that they’re older stars than our own means there’s been more time for intelligent life to arise as well.”

Atacama night sky - watching the Milky Way, Chile media_cameraThe transmission would be targeted at a select region of the Milky Way. Pictured is the Milky Way as seen from Chile. Picture: file/Kendall Hill

The message itself was designed by a NASA-led international team.

“The one thing we think is universal is mathematics,” said Professor Duffy.

“Using mathematical framing, you can begin to build up a bit of a dictionary, a sequence of ones and zeros, bits that computers read.”

Any mention of human language and culture will be left out in favour of physics* and biology.* Information on human DNA* will be included, as will the fact that we are bipedal, meaning we have two legs.

Professor Duffy said information about the location of Earth would also be included.

“We do that by what we hope is a pretty obvious global signposting, or at least a cosmological* signposting with a known globular cluster,” he said.

A globular cluster is a tightly bound cluster of tens of thousands of stars bound by gravity in the shape of a sphere. The message maps our position to nearby clusters with the hope that intelligent life will figure out the map.

Image obtained 29 Dec 2009 showing a composite of archival Hubble data taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Like a whirl of shiny flakes sparkling in a snow globe, Hubble caught this glimpse of many hundreds of thousands of stars moving about in the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky. This glittering metropolis of stars is easily found in the winter sky in the constellation Hercules and can even be glimpsed with the unaided eye under dark skies. M13 is home to over 100,000 stars and located at a distance of 25,000 light-years. These stars are packed so closely together in a ball, approximately 150 light-years across, that they will spend their entire lives whirling around in the cluster. media_cameraM13 is one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky, home to over 100,000 stars and located at a distance of 25,000 light-years. These stars are packed so closely together in a ball that they will spend their entire lives whirling around in the cluster. Picture: AFP

Should the message ever leave the planet, it won’t be the first – that was sent back in 1974 from Puerto Rico and described the basic chemical makeup of the DNA* molecule*, as well as sketches of a human being and our solar system. It was targeted at a cluster of stars over 25,000 light years away, so will not be arriving any time soon.

Since then plenty of other messages have been sent, including the Beatles song Across the Universe, a corn chip advertisement and an invitation in the fictional language Klingon (from the television series Star Trek) to a Klingon opera in the Netherlands.

This is the first message, however, that would provide a map to help aliens reach Earth. Clearly broadcasting our planet’s position has been criticised in the past. Over a decade ago, Professor Stephen Hawking said contact with advanced alien life was unlikely to work in our favour.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be as much as when Columbus* landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

“Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads*, looking to conquer* and colonise* whatever planets they can reach.”

media_cameraThe late British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) expressed doubt that contact with advanced alien life would end well for humanity, but some of the BITG researchers disagree. Picture: David Montgomery/Getty Images

The researchers heading the BITG project disagree. Lead researcher Dr Jonathan Jiang, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, previously said that if contact were made, the scientific value would vastly outweigh the concerns.

“A species which has reached sufficient complexity to achieve communication through the cosmos* would also very likely have attained* high levels of co-operation among themselves and thus will know the importance of peace and collaboration,” he said in the early study.

But Professor Duffy was uncertain whether the message should be sent, arguing that scientists today would be making a decision for the rest of humanity by sending it.

“You’ve made a call for all time – you can’t take back that message,” he said.

media_cameraThe transmission into space would be sent from both the 500m Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in China, pictured, and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in northern California in the US. Picture: NCA

If any nasty aliens wanting to colonise Earth did happen to receive the message, it would take them tens of thousands of years to even reach us, not to mention the thousands of years it would take for the message to reach its destination in the first place.

Despite all the work that’s gone into the transmission, Professor Duffy doesn’t think there’s any real need to send it.

“Any intelligent civilisation that’s more advanced than us … (is) going to know we’re here already,” he said.

“We are already sending out signals into space with our radio and TV signals. Radio has been transmitting for over 100 years now.

“I think that (the concerns) should give us all pause for thought and maybe to reconsider sending the message, but I do love the fact that we think about what the message itself should be.”

GLOSSARY

  • astronomer: scientist of astronomy, the study of stars, planets and space
  • extraterrestrial: existing outside Earth and its atmosphere
  • aperture: opening, hole, gap allowing light to pass through telescopes and cameras
  • spherical: shaped like a sphere, globe-shaped, round like a ball
  • transmission: action or process of communicating, conveying, sending
  • physics: science of matter, energy and their interactions
  • biology: study of living things and their vital processes
  • DNA: the molecule that carries genetic instructions in all living things
  • molecule: form when two or more atoms form chemical bonds with each other.
  • Columbus: Italian-born maritime explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag who made four Atlantic crossings
  • nomads: people who move from place to place instead of settling in one spot
  • conquer: take over, seize control or possession by force
  • colonise: taking control of a foreign place and sending your own people to live there
  • cosmos: the universe, space, often used to suggest an orderly system or whole
  • attained: achieved, reached, accomplished

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. If the message goes ahead, where will it be sent from?
  2. Which area destination would be the target of the transmission and why?
  3. What year was the first message sent from Earth?
  4. What are three unusual things included in earlier attempts?
  5. How long would it take hostile aliens to reach Earth if they were up to no good?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Write your own story
If you had the chance to write a message or include something in the BITG, what would you write or include? Think about what you think aliens need to know about kids on Earth. Write a message or create an artwork, diagram or other creative piece based on your ideas.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Visual Communication Design; Visual Arts

2. Extension
Do you agree with Steven Hawking that aliens coming to Earth would not be good for us? Do you think that it would be fantastic? Or could there be good and bad sides to this happening? Write paragraphs or a story that explores your thoughts.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
Imaginative dialogue
Imagine you were there during the event being discussed in the article, or for the interview.

Create a conversation between two characters from the article – you may need or want to include yourself as one of the characters. Don’t forget to try to use facts and details from the article to help make your dialogue as realistic as possible.

Go through your writing and highlight any punctuation you have used in green. Make sure you carefully check the punctuation used for the dialogue and ensure you have opened and closed the speaking in the correct places.

Extra Reading in space