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Building the Interstellar Message

I’m glad to see the phrasing of the key question used in the SETI Institute’s ‘Earth Speaks’ project. Assuming we one day detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, the Institute asks, ‘Should we reply, and if so, what should we say?’ Given the apparent ease with which broadcasts to the stars have been made in the last few years, advertising everything from snack foods to movies, this question might easily have been ‘What should we say when we respond to an extraterrestrial signal?’

When or if? I come down on the side of the ‘if’ formulation, because the question deserves a global response, one reflecting a broad range of disciplines and perspectives. Such a response takes time to build. Another thing I like about ‘Earth Speaks’ is that it will give us an interesting take on our own species. The plan here is to encourage people to submit messages, pictures and sounds online, using the Internet to solicit ideas.

Fine-Tuning an Interstellar Greeting

The site is here, where the project further defines itself:

People from around the world are invited to submit pictures, sounds, and text messages that they would want to send to other worlds. The project aims to foster a dialogue about what we should say to extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as whether or not we should be sending intentional messages.

According to the SETI Institute, ‘Earth Speaks’ will use some kind of message tagging, evidently inserted by its contributors, to categorize the incoming material, which can then be broken down by demographic variables. Commonalities and differences in content should offer perspective on how interstellar messaging is viewed by people around the world (those who are connected to the Internet, that is). Says the Institute’s Doug Vakoch:

“By studying the tags used by many different people, we can capture the major themes that run through thousands of individual messages. That sets the stage for creating interstellar messages that begin to portray the breadth and depth of the human experience.”

I’d prefer to say that it creates a cultural resource through which we can get a better understanding of our global differences as we confront the possibility of future contact. In any case, as the Allen Telescope Array moves into its survey of the galactic plane, SETI advocates believe the chances of a detection are increasing. I’ll wager we won’t have one in this century, but the prospect is enticing and can be a useful tool in energizing public interest about our place in the cosmos.

Broadening the Debate


So is this the beginning of a larger public debate about whether or not we should send messages to other worlds? The SETI Institute has no current plans to transmit such messages, but powerful signals have been sent in the past from the Evpatoria Planetary Radar in the Ukraine, beginning with the Cosmic Call transmissions of 1999 and 2003, and including the so-called Teen Age Message to the Stars in 2001. A recent Evpatoria transmission was beamed at the star Gliese 581. We should also note the 1974 signal sent from Arecibo to the star cluster M13, and the recent flurry of commercially inspired message traffic.

Image: The RT-70 planetary radar site in Evpatoria.

In fact, given the global nature of both SETI and METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence), I would favor a wider approach that links this SETI Institute initiative to similar efforts among other SETI/METI proponents and skeptics. The Internet conversation about the merits of messaging the stars is provocative but the public is largely unaware of its complexities. Can ‘Earth Speaks’ grow into not only a database of public responses but a larger conversation that brings in experts from many disciplines to debate these matters online? Note, for example, Tibor Pacher’s Faces from Earth project, a reflection of the ways the Net is growing communities whose interplay can serve this purpose.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze May 19, 2009, 12:22

    Send the following message:

    Attention to all Extraterrestrial Intelligences in this galaxy:

    Lonely people on planet Earth seeking out new life and civilisations for friendship, seeking solution to practical interstellar flight so we can meetup over a drink together, please send over info? ;-)

    Bit hard to have a decent conversation over lightyears…


  • Tibor May 19, 2009, 12:47

    The project “Faces from Earth” – still in its infancy – seeks ways to enlarge the discussion and offers open – and hopefully – eclectic forums to everybody to discuss questions related to Interstellar Messages, even if its focus is on message artefacts to be sent one day on deep space missions.

  • mike shupp May 19, 2009, 13:40

    Wel, actually as a long term science fiction reader, I’m a bit hesitant about sending HERE WE ARE messages to extraterrestrials of unknown capability and not yet proven friendliness.

    OTOH, moving past that, there’s something wierdly wonderful about a message to the stars that follows up the standard II+III=IIIIII stuff we’ve been constructing for 50 years with a couple of thousand pictures and data frames telling ET’s “I’m Maori Thallens for Sri Lanka, I’m ten and in fourth grade school at…” “I’m Horace Wallace, a police detective in San Diego California. My son is studying astronomy….” “I’m Dr. Lois Alsane, a physicist at the University of Honolulu…” “I’m Karl Schartzmann, I own a grocery in Bonn, Germany, and …”

    It would almost unimaginably grand to send a message showing human diversity to the stars. The only thing better would be receiving such a message.

  • tacitus May 19, 2009, 14:24

    I am all for this type of effort. Just as long as we can move beyond the “is it safe to send any message at all” debate, which is so last century. From all we know about space, time, and physics, the odds of an ETI becoming any kind of threat to us because they detect one of our METI signals are simply too astronomical to worry about. If there are dangerous beings out there who are in a position to harm us, then they almost certainly know about us already.

    Ditto the argument that we might reveal ourselves to be too much of a threat to our extraterrestrial neighbors to be allowed to survive. We are barely able to get off the Earth’s surface, let alone travel to another star system. We are already effectively quarantined from the rest of the galaxy, and it will probably be many centuries, if ever, before we could threaten any ETI civilization capable of wiping us out today.

    So, yes please, let’s press on with the debate. The odds that any METI will find a listener are small, but the exercise is worth the relatively small amount of time, money, and effort given the possible rate of return on investment should the effort succeed.

  • Athena Andreadis May 19, 2009, 15:50

    As I said on the SETI discussion list, this activity is both hopeful and delightful. Like SETI@home, it will bring people together in something constructive. This alone makes it worthwhile — anything beyond that will be a bonus.

  • Ronald May 20, 2009, 5:16

    I fully agree with Tacitus (though honestly I have little expectation with regard to the results of such an excercise).

    Remote detection and communication will always come long before any physical travel capabilities, so any advanced civilization in our galaxy already knows we are here, at least as a living planet. Communication from an intelligence on that living planet might greatly enrich that knowledge.

    Though, again, first things first: I attach vastly more value to spectroscopic analysis of (terrestrial) exoplanet atmospheres for biosignatures.

  • ljk May 20, 2009, 9:30

    Assuming the SETI Institute ever does decide to send these messages into
    the galaxy, how do they plan on making them understood by an alien species?

    I am not going to assume that beings from another world will know English
    or any other human language. Images might have to do, assuming they see
    in the way and at the wavelengths we do.

  • Gregory Benford May 21, 2009, 0:52

    Has no one paid attention to the costs of a METI signal? It’s billions, as our papers showed. And that’s even optimistic.

  • ljk May 21, 2009, 14:32

    Well, there’s another potential answer to the Fermi Paradox: Even sending
    messages are just too darn expensive, let alone an actual starship.

  • Alexander Zaitsev June 7, 2009, 2:33

    Please read:

    “Not The First Global Message to ETI”

  • ljk June 30, 2009, 15:07

    The future of SETI: Finite effort or search without end?

    Albert A. Harrison

    Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616,

    Available online 4 May 2009.


    For almost 50 years, astronomers have scanned the skies for evidence
    of an extraterrestrial civilization that has reached or surpassed our
    level of technological development. In the course of this search,
    technology has improved dramatically, and additional developments such
    as larger and more sensitive telescopes and increased computing power
    will accelerate the search and extend it into new areas. Speculative
    search strategies that are more firmly rooted in imagination and wish
    than present-day science may mature with the practical effect of
    further extending the search space.

    The search for extraterrestrial
    intelligence (SETI), based on passive observation, has been joined by
    the controversial activity of messaging extraterrestrial intelligence
    (METI), the use of radio transmissions and space probes to proclaim
    our place in the universe. Potential “wild cards” that could
    fundamentally change the nature of the search include government
    intervention, the fruition of breakthrough technologies, and a
    confirmed detection. A rigorous search could confirm the existence of
    extraterrestrial intelligence tomorrow, within the lifetime of many
    people now alive, or in the distant future. All that is required for
    its continuation is a small number of scientists who have the skills
    and equipment to conduct a search that most scientists find credible.

    Since the search for life beyond Earth is motivated by cultural and
    psychological as well as scientific considerations, we may expect it
    to continue into the indefinite future.

    Article Outline

    1. Introduction
    2. Microwave and optical SETI
    3. Alternative search strategies
    4. METI
    5. Cultural aspects of SETI
    6. Concluding comments


    Corresponding Author Contact InformationTel.: +1 530 756 2361.


  • ljk July 12, 2009, 11:10

    A Cosmic Call to Nearby Stars

    Credit & Copyright: Yuvan Dutil & Stephane Dumas

    Explanation: If Earth received this message from deep space, could we decode it? The people from the Cosmic Call project sent the above image as the first page of a longer message.

    The message was broadcast toward local stars by radio telescope during the summer of 1999. Another message was sent in 2003. The single-dish, 70-meter diameter telescope that send the messages is located in Ukraine on the Crimean peninsula near the town of Yevpatoria.

    This first page of the Cosmic Call 1999 message, shown above, involves only numbers and so is easier for puzzle solvers to decode than a more famous message broadcast toward distant star cluster M13 in 1974. (The solution is here.)


  • ljk August 13, 2009, 15:25

    Send a message to the stars!

    Wednesday, 12 August 2009

    by Katie Silver

    Cosmos Online

    SYDNEY: What would you like to say to aliens? That’s the question COSMOS is asking of the people of Earth over the next two weeks, as we give you the opportunity to send a text message to the nearest Earth-like planet.

    “It’s like a ‘message in a bottle’ cast out into the stars,” said Wilson da Silva, editor of COSMOS. “What’s interesting is not just whether there’s anyone listening, but what the public will say to intelligent life on another planet, given the opportunity.”

    During Australia’s National Science week – from today until 5pm Sydney time (7 am GMT) on Monday 24 August – the public can visit http://www.HelloFromEarth.net and post 160-character text messages to the nearest known Earth-like planet.

    Message in a bottle

    “We’ve secured incredible support from around the globe, including NASA – people are really excited about this,” added da Silva, who spoke at the launch of the project in Canberra today.

    The planet in question, Gliese 581d (pronounced ‘glee-suh’), is one of more than 350 known exoplanets; which are worlds that orbit other stars.

    What makes Gliese 581d special is that it’s one of the best contenders for extraterrestrial life outside our Solar System, given that it is in the habitable zone of its star. Planets in this zone are just the right distance for liquid water to potentially exist.

    Eight-times the size of Earth, it is classified as a ‘super Earth’, and is the “first serious waterworld candidate,” according to one of its discoverers, Stephane Udry from the Geneva observatory in Switzerland.

    COSMOS and the Australian Government, with support provided by Questacon, CSIRO and NASA, will be beaming the messages from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, in Tidbinbilla, on Friday 28 August. For more information click here.

    Will we get a response?

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    At the launch of National Science Week today, in Canberra, Senator Kim Carr, the minister for innovation, industry, science and research entered the first message, which read:

    “Hello from Australia on the planet we call Earth. These messages express our people’s dreams for the future. We want to share those dreams with you.”

    “What better way to discover the limitless possibilities of science than to give Australians the opportunity to try to seek contact with other intelligent life forms,” Senator Carr said at the launch.

    “As a child I, like many Australians, stared up at the stars and wondered what was out there. Now science has allowed me to send a personal message that may answer that question.”

  • ljk January 26, 2010, 2:34