November 16 2018 marks 44 years since researchers sent humankind’s first interstellar radio message – an achievement Google is celebrating with a Google Doodle.
The Arecibo Message, sent from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974, is a three-minute message of exactly 1,679 binary digits – which, if arranged in a specific way, can explain basic information about humanity and earth to extraterrestrial beings.
The message was sent via radio waves to a cluster of stars known as M13 about 25,000 light years away. Scientists haven’t suggested they expect anyone to pick the dispatch up, but rather wanted to show the world they could communicate in such a way.
“It was a strictly symbolic event, to show that we could do it,” Cornell University professor of astronomy Donald Campbell recalled of the momentous event. The event moved some present to tears as researchers contemplated their own existence and knowledge of planets and solar systems. The hope is that, in many thousands of years, it may reach another living being.
The actual message was devised by a team of researchers from Cornell University led by astronomer and astrophysicist Dr Frank Drake.
“It was a strictly symbolic event to show that we could do it,” said Donald Campbell, professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
At the time, the Arecibo radio telescope was the most powerful in the world and scientists wanted to showcase its power. While entirely demonstrative, some do hope that in thousands of years the message is picked up by alien life.
The letter was devised by a team of researchers from Cornell University and led by astronomer and astrophysicist Dr Frank Drake.
Anyone out there?
Dr Drake arranged the intelligence in a grid comprising 73 rows by 23 columns. Simply, the composition is made up of colourful squares shaped in such a way to form a pictograph, which represents facts about mathematics, human DNA, planet earth, and humans.
In an old Nasa blog, Dr Drake explained the message:
“This attempt at extraterrestrial communication was mostly ceremonial – humanity regularly broadcasts radio and television signals out into space accidentally. Even were this message received, M13 is so far away we would have to wait almost 50,000 years to hear an answer.
“The above message gives a few simple facts about humanity and its knowledge: from left to right are numbers from one to ten, atoms including hydrogen and carbon, some interesting molecules, DNA, a human with description, basics of our Solar System, and basics of the sending telescope.
“Several searches for extraterrestrial intelligence are currently underway, including one where you can use your own home computer.”
A PR stunt?
Some believe the Arecibo Message was nothing more than a PR stunt. Others think the world has already had a reply, in the form of a crop circle in Ohio.
Will we ever get an undisputed response?
Google said: “Since the Arecibo Message will take roughly 25,000 years to reach its intended destination (a group of 300,000 stars in the constellation Hercules known as M13), humankind will have to wait a long time for an answer.
“In the 44 years since it was first transmitted, the message has traveled only 259 trillion miles, only a tiny fraction of the 146,965,638,531,210,240 or so miles to its final destination. During that same time, our understanding of the cosmos has advanced by leaps and bounds, raising hopes that someone may be out there, listening.”