January 29, 2010

Should We Really Be Sending Messages Into Space?

For 50 years now, astronomers and space enthusiasts have been listening for signals in the background noise of space that might point to another civilization, but some experts say numerous messages zipping through the cosmos could be confusing or simply meaningless, AFP reported.

NASA beamed the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into deep space in 2008, sending a message of peace to any extraterrestrial who happens to be in the region of Polaris, also called the North Star, in 2439.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney called it "Amazing!"

"Well done, NASA! Send my love to the aliens," McCartney added.

But aside from a few brief and intriguing events, nothing has really shown up, which is why the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is set to shift more and more from "passive" to "active" mode.

"Active SETI" is a new approach that will use powerful radio astronomy transmitters to beam out to interesting stars or extrasolar planets in the hope of eventually achieving some form of alien communication.

So far a tiny 1,679-bit message was beamed in 1974 to star M13, 25,000 light years away; two "Cosmic Calls" in 1999 and 2003; a 2006 TV show by the Franco-German channel ARTE which beamed messages from the public to the star Errai, 45 light years distant; and a "Message from Earth" to a planet orbiting the star Gliese 581, incorporating contributions from users of social networking site Bebo, have all been projects in SETI's ongoing mission.

Therefore, alien civilizations are in for a smorgasbord of human culture if they exist -- and if they are able to decipher the messages.

Many different messages have been sent out, such as an "Interstellar Rosetta Stone" of symbols that give information about Earth and Homo sapiens, and even jokes.
Political statements have also been beamed into the universe, such as "X-Files" actress Gillian Anderson sending out an image of George W. Bush as the personification of evil, juxtaposed against Barack Obama as the embodiment of good.

Recordings of the vaginal contractions of ballerinas with the Boston Ballet, a renegade 1980s art project aimed at giving the galaxy an idea of human conception, were sent out to any life forms at Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti.

Astrophysicist Malcolm Fridlund at the European Space Agency (ESA) says that active SETI may well be a waste of time given the absence of any evidence so far that extraterrestrial life of any kind exists.

However, he suggests Earthlings should show caution about drawing so much attention to ourselves.

Fridlund told AFP that even though he's not lying awake at night worrying about the overlords of the galaxy or anything like that, Earth should careful, considering we don't know of anything that's out there.

"You should know something about the (star) system first," he warned.

British cosmologist Stephen Hawking shares Fridlund's concern.

He suggests "we should keep our heads low," given any possibility of encountering a hostile, technologically superior civilization.

The prestigious British journal Nature warned in 2006 that the risk posed by active SETI is real. The editorial would create divisions among enthusiasts as to who had the right to be ambassador of Earth.

"It is not obvious that all extraterrestrial civilizations will be benign -- or that contact with even a benign one would not have serious repercussions for people here on Earth."


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