October 9, 2008

Photos, Text Messages Sent To Planet 20 Light Years Away

More than 500 images, text messages and drawings were transmitted to a planet 20 light years away from Earth on Thursday by a massive radar telescope in the Ukraine that normally tracks asteroids.

The recipient planet, known as Gliese 581C, was selected because scientists believe it is capable of supporting life.  However, any reply to the messages would not return to Earth for 40 years. 

The effort is part of a competition known as "A Message From Earth" that is being sponsored by the social networking website Bebo, which asked its 12 million users to send in any communications they would like the extra-terrestrials to receive.  The users submitted a wide variety of material, ranging from politics and the environment to family relationships and world peace.

The 500 selected messages were translated into a binary format, and will now travel 120 trillion miles into space after being sent out via high-powered radio waves from the National Space Agency of Ukraine's RT-70 radar telescope in Evpatoria.

The messages, launched at 0600 GMT Thursday, ""passed the Moon in 1.7 seconds, Mars in just four minutes and will leave our Solar System before breakfast tomorrow," said Bebo's mission commander Oli Madgett.  

The competition's managers hope the messages will reach Gliese 581C in early 2029.

"A Message From Earth presents an opportunity for the digital natives of today... to reconnect with science and the wider universe in a simple, fun and immersive way," Bebo spokesman Mark Charkin told BBC News.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer from the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in California, said whether or not the extraterrestrials would understand the messages they were being sent was not the point.

"The point might simply be: well, here we are; we're clever enough to build a radio transmitter," he told BBC News.

"So if anybody's out there and they find that signal, they at least know it that, in the direction of that star system over there, there must be a planet with some pretty clever things on it."


Image Caption: Artist's impression of the five-Earth mass planet, Gliese 581 c, found in the habitable zone around the red dwarf Gliese 581, with the instrument HARPS on the ESO 3.6-m telescope. (c) ESO