Science & Technology

A New Arecibo Message to Extraterrestrials Needs Your Suggestions

If you had the chance to talk to an extraterrestrial, what would you want to say? There's a coalition of astronomers hoping to update an old message sent to aliens in 1974 that talked about the world as it was in the era of the Vietnam War and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If you're 5 to 16 years old, you can help craft the new message yourself — and if not, be sure to let the younger people in your life know how to get involved!

Related Video: What Is SETI?

Tell Me What I Want to Hear

One thing that all communicators learn to do, whether they're ad executives or journalists or politicians, is how to connect to their audience. You need to shape your message into something that people want to hear. For instance, saying a smartphone can hold 5,000 songs sure sounds more interesting to a regular audience than talking about how many gigabytes are in its hard drive.

So what would an alien want to hear about from Earth? Some honesty might be in order. We're messing up our planet through climate change. Groups all over the world are worried about income inequality and societal structures that encourage bigotry, prejudice, and other ills. But there are also some good things about us. We've got an International Space Station that's been happily functioning for 20 years in orbit. And when natural disaster strikes, there are always many people rushing in helping the affected.

It's a message that you'll have to craft with care, but luckily, there's a whole Challenge website set up to help you start thinking along the right lines. In order to craft your message, you'll need to form a team and solve a number of puzzles and questions. Part 1 of the Challenge will be released on December 16.

Original Arecibo message with added color to highlight the separate parts. The actual binary transmission carried no color information.

Why Now?

The Arecibo Observatory — no stranger to funding challenges, natural disasters, or cultural issues itself — is reemerging scientifically after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. The Challenge is a way to remind people of the past when, in 1974, scientists beamed a message to space from Arecibo in the general direction of a star cluster called M13.

The message was simple, but powerful, because it revealed the basics about humans: where we live (the solar system), the elements of DNA (which make up our bodies), what we look like (via an image of a human), and what we used to send the message (a graphic of the radio telescope).

Astronomers want to have the new message ready in time for the original message's 45th anniversary — that would be in 2019 — to show those aliens how much we've changed (or stayed the same) in the last half-century. The first message was sent in an era before the Internet was widely available, not to mention smartphones and social media. Those are all things that today's youngsters take for granted. What new ideas can be conveyed with the tech we have today?

To learn more about the 1974 Arecibo Message, check out this page by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute.

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For more about the search for alien life, check out "The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence" by physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell December 11, 2018

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