If You Say Hello, Will Anyone Respond?

July 14, 2017

Well, that is a good question. If you are walking down the street and say hello to friends, then yes! Strangers? Maybe. But how about if you send a message into space to reach other forms of life. Will anyone respond? And more importantly, do we want them to?

Sit back and relax as we take a quick trip through the history of this question. The year was 1974, and in a space observatory in Puerto Rico, scientists and astronomers were gathered to rename one of the largest telescopes of the time, the Arecibo Observatory.

By H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF. (The original uploader was Quazgaa at English Wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Jakuzem at en.wikipedia.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To celebrate, astronomers who worked at the observatory decided to do something special. They sent a message into space. It wasn’t exactly “Hello! Who’s there?” but it was the first time humans used space for something other than learning. The actual message was a series of beeps—not a sound but radio waves—traveling at the speed of light that marked the message for other beings.

Did the astronomers hear back? Well, no. It took less than a day for the message to leave the solar system and reach the orbit of Mars. This message was actually a source of controversy because not everyone approved of reaching out to space. The Royal Astronomer of England, Sir Martin Ryle, condemned the act, suggesting humans were looking for trouble. What if those who received the message were not … well … friendly? We never heard back from anyone so we will probably never know.

This month, METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a group formed by scientists who were part of a group called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is launching an “out of the world” project. The project is called Breakthrough Listen and is the largest ever scientific program aimed at finding civilization beyond Earth.

Using powerful instruments, the project goal is to survey and scan stars for any signs that indicate intelligent beings. A smaller project, Breakthrough Message, is a $1 million competition meant to design a message that represents planet Earth and hopefully be understood by other civilizations.

So now the question is: if you could send a message to beings outside planet Earth, what would you say?