This October, scientists and artists beamed a message to GJ 273, a red dwarf also known as Luyten's star that lies 12.36 light-years from Earth and hosts two known planets, one of which, GJ 273b, may be capable of supporting life as we know it.
The team sent a message that includes a scientific and mathematical "tutorial," as well as 33 short musical compositions by artists in the Sónar community. The team beamed this message out in binary code at two different radio frequencies on Oct. 16, Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, using the 105-foot-wide (32 meters) European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) radio antenna in Tromsø, Norway.
Though the message was designed to provoke a response from an intelligent advance civilization living on GJ 273b, the main goal in sending the communication involved laying a foundation for the future, said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens]
"It is a prototype for what I think we would most likely need to do 100 times, or 1,000 times, or 1 million times," Vakoch told Space.com. "To me, the big success of the project will come if, 25 years from now, there's someone who remembers to look [for a response]. If we could accomplish that, that would be a radical shift of perspective."
"It's really hard to imagine a scenario in which a civilization around Luyten's star could have the capacity to come to Earth and threaten us, and yet they're not able to pick up our leakage radiation," he said, referring to the TV and radio signals that have been slipping out into the cosmos from Earth for more than half a century.
The Luyten's star project, known as "Sónar Calling GJ 273b," is a collaboration involving METI International; the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain; and Sónar, a music, creativity and technology festival in Barcelona, Spain.
"Doing it in partnership with the Sónar festival is a way that we can respect the necessity of incorporating a scientific perspective but also to recognize that doesn't capture the fullness of the human spirit," Vakoch said.
"The challenge of constructing any interstellar message is trying to anticipate what you and your recipient have in common," said Vakoch,
"One thing we can guarantee is they won't be native speakers of English or Swahili or Chinese." And the same problem applies to any incoming message to Earth.
"It's very reasonable to think that we will know there's an extraterrestrial out there, that we will have a message that is distinctly artificial, but that we won't be able to decipher it."
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet"
"We don't know when earthlings will discover ET. It could be 1,000 years from now, or in our lifetimes. It could be next year, when China's new FAST radio telescope, now the world's largest, gets going on the sky surveys," said Dan Werthimer, co-founder and chief scientist of the SETI@home project.
"China's latest telescope will be able to look faster and further than past searches for extraterrestrial intelligence," says Vakoch.
With no clues of extraterrestrial life over the past five decades, questions are constantly asked as whether the search methods are appropriate.
Liu Cixin, a Chinese science fiction writer and winner of the Hugo Award for his novel The Three Body Problem, points out the current method assumes that aliens also communicate in radio waves. "But if it's a truly advanced civilization, it is possible to use other more advanced forms of communication, such as gravitational waves."
But Shude Mao is a research professor at China's National Astronomical Observatories (NAOC), and Chair of the Division of Galaxy and Cosmology, believes many methods deserve a try: "Who knows what they are and how they think? "When we study the origin of life, we risk going down a blind alley if we only have one sample from Earth," Mao says. "If we could find more samples in the universe, we could look at the puzzle more comprehensively and solve it more easily."
Mao gives an example in astronomy to explain the limitations of a single sample. "When scientists started to look for planets around Sun-like stars, they thought it must be difficult as their period might be as long as a year. However, the first such planet discovered outside our solar system takes only four days to orbit its host star – much faster than astronomers expected. At that time, some people doubted it, showing how the example of our solar system narrowed their thinking."
"If we really discover extraterrestrial life, I'd like to know how life spreads in the universe. Is it distributed uniformly in space, or clustered?" Mao wonders.
The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin depicted the universe as a jungle with every civilization as a hidden hunter. Those who are exposed will be eliminated.
But Han Song, another leading Chinese science fiction writer, believes humans naturally want to connect, citing the Internet as proof. "I think aliens might think similarly. It is a biological instinct to connect with each other. Everyone wants to prove that they are not alone in the universe. Loneliness is intolerable to humans," he says.
He also points out that the contact will be driven by curiosity and real requirements. "Humans will ultimately go to space to find resources and expand their living area, so it will be hard to avoid aliens. Contact with them, especially those with more advanced intelligence, may help us leap forward in civilization."
Regardless of the theoretical debate, scientists have never wavered in the search. "I think we shall call out. As a matter of fact, we have been yelling for years, and our radios and televisions are broadcasting in space all the time," Mao says, "Aren't you curious what our counterparts would look like?
"If they are inferior or equal to us in terms of civilization, we won't be easily destroyed. If they are much more intelligent than us, they wouldn't be so narrow-minded as to compete with us. Some worry they will come to rob us of our natural resources, but they likely have the power to transform the entire globe already. What's the point of eliminating a much lower civilization?"
Mao believes the result will be significant however it turns out. "If we find other life, it will undoubtedly be the most important scientific discovery in our history; if not, it shows that life on Earth is unique and we should respect life and cherish each other.
"No matter the outcome, we shall never stop searching, and I hope to hear more voices and contributions from Chinese scientists."
“If we are in danger of an alien invasion, it’s too late,” Vakoch wrote. On the other hand, Vakoch argued that there’s a potential cost to staying silent – “for example, missing guidance that could enhance our own civilization’s sustainability, or averting attacks from aliens who would otherwise annihilate us for not reaching out.”
“Scientists already have a process for judging the merit of METI projects: peer review,” Vakoch said. “Decisions about allocating time for METI at publicly funded observatories should rely on the same procedure used for competing experiments.”
“I don’t think this is a matter to be settled by scientific peer review,” said Washington State University astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch. “The repercussions of sending a message and possibly getting a response — or even an alien visit — are just too great for this to be decided by a small group of scientists alone.”
Schulze-Makuch suggested that international protocols, presumably established by the United Nations, and which procedures we follow if we get a reply.
"We have a lot of problems as a species that we're struggling with," Vakoch said. "We're not sure if we're even going to survive as a species on our planet. I think a more informative message would be actually to talk about some of the challenges we face because I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of our civilization."
Or perhaps people shouldn't bother composing a message at all. Another SETI scientist, astronomer Seth Shostak, has proposed that we just broadcast everything on the Google servers out to aliens."
Instead of trying to think of what's fundamental, just send them a lot of data and let them sort through and find the pattern," Vakoch said.
Image credit: Credit: D. Aguilar Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics