Astronomy breakthrough: ‘Many civilisations out there’ as search for alien life ramps up

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SETI, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, listens for radio or laser signals from space. It has been the most widely used form of alien hunting, used at its earliest during the early 1900s with the advent of radio. The problem with SETI, especially for those astronomers who are eager to find extraterrestrial life, is that it is a waiting game: you must patiently listen, hoping to come across some glimmer of signal from the stars.

METI, messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, reverses this process; instead of listening for alien signals, researchers like astrobiologist Dr Douglas Vakoch, President of METI, send powerful and intentional messages to nearby stars.

The goal is to elicit a response, of which Dr Vakoch is extremely hopeful that the technique will eventually work.

However, he admitted his biggest concern is that there are in fact “a lot of other civilisations out there” that might never pick up on our signals.

He says those distant civilisations might be making the same mistakes as us.

He told BBC Science Focus Magazine: “My big concern is that there are, in fact, a lot of other civilisations out there, but they’re doing exactly what we are.

“They have these robust SETI programmes and everyone is listening, but no one is saying hello.

“And so this is our effort to join the galactic conversation.”

METI isn’t entirely new, although it is in some respects groundbreaking.

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Astronomers have previously sent out sporadic messages.

The most famous was sent from what was at the time the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

In order to show the Earth is home to intelligent lifeforms, a three-minute message was sent out into the Universe in 1974.

The message was binary in format, and sent out the numbers one to ten, accompanied by a description of chemical elements important to life on Earth in terms of atomic numbers.


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There was also with it a description of human DNA, what we look like, how tall we are and how many humans were on Earth at the time.

Any being that came across the message would also have learned what our Solar System is like, and what the telescope transmitting the message looked like.

Dr Vakoch said: “It was pretty ambitious to cram a lot of information in three minutes.”

Of course, for any extraterrestrial coming across this data, it might have been what we call a “brain-dump”.

Thus, at METI, Dr Vackoch and his team send shorter, clearer, much more succinct and intelligible messages to the galaxy.

He said: “My concern of sending everything is that maybe nothing will be understandable.

“So we take the opposite strategy and – instead of an encyclopaedia – we send a primer that is really targeted to alien scientists.”

Another problem with the Arecibo telescope is the nature of time, as well as the makeup of the machine.

If its message does eventually reach a target recipient, scientists on Earth won’t get a reply for 550,000 years such is the distance between our planet and the star system it was targeted at.

And because of the way Arecibo is positioned, built into the Earth’s surface, it can only send a message around 10 degrees either side and straight up from it.

This means that the only real target was a globular cluster of stars called M13 – some 25,000 light years way.

Betting on a single star cluster when there are millions of others is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

Dr Vakoch and his team hope to change this by diversifying their messages, but also by sending more signals out, repeatedly, until eventually, there is a reply.

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