I always knew where I stood with Alexander Zaitsev. In the period 2008-2011, he was a frequent visitor on Centauri Dreams, drawn initially by an article I wrote about SETI, and in particular whether it would be wise to go beyond listening for ETI and send out directed broadcasts to interesting nearby stars. At that time, I was straddling the middle on METI — Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence — but Dr. Zaitsev found plenty of discussion here on both sides, and he joined in forcefully.

Image: Alexander Leonidovich Zaitsev, METI advocate and radio astronomer, whose messages to the cosmos include the 1999 and 2003 ‘Cosmic Calls’ from Evpatoria. Credit: Seth Shostak.

The Russian astronomer, who died last week, knew where he stood, and he knew where you should stand as well. As my own views on intentional broadcasts moved toward caution in future posts, he and I would have the occasional email exchange. He was always courteous but sometimes exasperated. When I was in his good graces, his messages would always be signed ‘Sasha.’ When he was feeling combative, they would be signed ‘Alexander.’ And if I really tripped his wires, they would end with a curt ‘Zaitsev.’

I liked his forthrightness, and tweaked him a bit by always writing him back as ‘Sasha’ no matter what the signature on the current email. By 2008, he was already well established for his work on radar astronomy in planetary science and near-Earth objects, but in the public eye he was becoming known for his broadcasts from the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in the Crimea. It was from Evpatoria that he broadcast the radio messages known as Cosmic Calls in 1999 and again in 2003. The messages were made up of audio, video, image and data files. The so-called Teen-Age Message, aimed at six Sun-like stars, went out in 2001.

Inevitably, Zaitsev became the spokesman for METI, and he defended his position with vigor in online postings as well as public debate. He had little patience with those who advised proceeding carefully, pointing out that planetary radars like Arecibo and Evpatoria were already broadcasting our presence inadvertently. To me the matter is inherently multidisciplinary, and requires the collaboration of not just physicists but historians, linguists, social scientists and more before proceeding. Zaitsev argued that planetary radars, so essential for our security against stray asteroids, were already broadcasting our presence. Should we also shut these down?

Image: RT-70 radio telescope and planetary radar at the Center for Deep Space Communications in the Crimea.

METI is a highly polarizing issue, and the arguments over intentional broadcasts continue. Surely, some argue, any advanced extraterrestrial intelligence has already picked up the signature of life on Earth, if only through analysis of our atmosphere. Some argue that our technosignature in the form of electromagnetic leakage has already entertained nearby stars with our early television shows, though Jim Benford has demonstrated that these signals are too weak to be detected by our most powerful devices. Planetary radar may indeed announce our presence — it’s strong enough to be picked up — but the counter-argument is that such beams are not aimed at specific points in space, and would be perceived as occasional transients of uncertain origin.

The debate continues, and it’s not my intention to explore it further today, so I’ll just direct those interested to several differing takes on the issue. Start with METI opponent David Brin’s article SETI, METI… and Assessing Risks like Adults, which ran in these pages in 2011, as well as Nick Nielsen’s SETI, METI and Existential Risk, from the same timeframe. Larry Klaes has an excellent overview in The Pros and Cons of METI. Remember that METI goes back to 1974 and Frank Drake’s Arecibo message, aimed at the Hercules globular cluster some 25,000 light years away and obviously symbolic.

A Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989, usually referred to simply as the First Protocol. A second protocol could have tuned up our policy for sending messages from Earth, but arguments over whether it should only affect responses to received messages — or messages sent before any extraterrestrial signal was detected — complicated the picture. The situation became so controversial that Michael Michaud and John Billingham resigned from the committee that formulated it as their language calling for international consultations was deleted.

Michaud remembered Zaitsev in an email this morning:

“I met Zaitsev at a SETI-related conference in England in 2010. He struck me as a straightforward man who spoke English well enough to engage in discussions. While I disagreed with his sending messages from a radio telescope in Ukraine without prior consultations, I had the impression that he would have been willing to talk further about the issue. I sent him a copy of my book, for which he thanked me. David Brin later initiated an email debate with Zaitsev about METI. Sasha handled David’s sharp words in a good-humored way.”

That 2010 meeting brought the two sides of the METI debate together. I want to quote Jim Benford at some length on this, as he was also involved.

“I met Alexander Zaitsev at a debate sponsored by the Royal Society in October 2010 in the UK. (The debate is documented in JBIS January 2014 volume 67 No.1 which I edited. It contains the speeches and rebuttals to the speeches). The debate was on whether sending messages to ETI should be done. Advocating METI were Seth Shostak, Stephane Dumas, and Alexander Zaitsev. The opposing team, David Brin, myself and Michael Michaud, advocated that before transmitting, a public discussion should take place to deal with the questions of who speaks for Earth and what should they say?

Image: (Left to right) David Brin, Jim Benford, Michael Michaud.

“Alexander Zaitsev had already transmitted messages, such as the ‘Cosmic Call 1’ message to the stars. Zaitsev radiated in 1999 from the RT-70, Evpatoria, in Crimea, Ukraine, a 70-m dish with transmitter power up to 150 kW at frequencies about 5 GHz.

“John Billingham and I pointed out that these messages were highly unlikely to be received. We took as an example the Cosmic Call 1 message. The content ranged from simple digital signals to music. Can civilizations in the stars hear them? The stars targeted ranged between 32 ly and 70 ly, so the signals will be weak when they arrive. The question then becomes: how big an antenna and how sensitive receiver electronics needed to be to detect them?

“First, we evaluated the ability of Zaitsev’s RT-70 to detect itself, assuming ETI has the same level of capability as ourselves. For a robust signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) of 10, this is 3 ly, less than the distance to even the nearest star. So the RT-70 messages would not be detected by RT-70.

“Could an ETI SKA [Square Kilometre Array] detect Earth Radio Telescopes? Zaitsev’s assumption was that Extra-Terrestrials have SKA-like systems. But for S/N=10, R=19 ly, which is not in the range of the stars targeted. Even an ET SKA would not detect the Cosmic Call 1 message.

“I presented our argument that “Who speaks for Earth?” deserves public discussion, along with our calculations.When Alexander spoke, I realized that our arguments didn’t speak to Alexander’s beliefs. He didn’t particularly care whether the messages were received. He thought it was a matter of principle to transmit. We should send messages because they announce ourselves. Reception at the other end was not necessary.”

Image: A forceful Zaitsev makes a point at the Royal Society meeting. At left (left to right) are Seth Shostak and Stephane Dumas. Credit: Jim Benford.

I think Jim’s point is exactly right. In my own dealings with him, Dr. Zaitsev never made the argument that the messages he was sending would be received. I assume he looked upon them in something of the same spirit that Drake offered the Arecibo message, as a way of demonstrating the human desire to reach out into the cosmos (after all, no one would dream a message to the Hercules cluster would ever get there). But these first intentional steps to reach other civilizations would, presumably, be followed by further directed broadcasts until contact was achieved.

At least, I think that is how Dr. Zaitsev saw things. He would chafe at his inability to jump into this discussion if he were able to do so, and if I have misrepresented his view, I’m sure I would be getting one of his ‘Zaitsev’ emails rather than a friendly ‘Sasha’ signoff. But I hope I stayed on his good side most of the time. This was a man I liked and admired for his dedication despite how widely his views diverged from my own.

Asked for his thoughts on the 2010 meeting, Seth Shostak responded:

“I encountered Sasha Zaitsev at quite a few meetings, and always found him interesting and personable. He was promoting active SETI, and in that was somewhat of a lone wolf … there weren’t many who thought it was a worthy idea, and probably even fewer who thought that his transmission efforts – which he did without advance notice – were necessarily a good idea.

“But personally, I thought such criticism was kind of petty. I admired Alex for doing these things … But maybe it was because he was similar to the best scientists in boldly going …”

Image: The panel at the Royal Society meeting. Left to right: David Brin; Jim Benford; Michael Michaud; Seth Shostak; Stephane Dumas; Alexander Zaitsev. At podium, Martin Dominik. Credit: Jim Benford.

Alexander Zaitsev was convinced the universe held species with which we needed to engage, and I believe his purpose was to awaken the public to our potential to reach out, not in some uncertain future but right now. Given that serious METI is now joined by advertising campaigns and other private ventures, it could be said that we are not adept at presenting our best side to the cosmos, but then that too was Zaitsev’s point: It’s too late to stop this, he might have said. Let’s make our messages mean something.

David Brin, who so often engaged with him in debate, had this to say of Dr. Zaitsev:

Sasha Zaitsev was both a noted astronomer whose work in radio astronomy will long be remembered. He was also a zealous believer in a lively, beneficent cosmos. His sincere faith led him to cast forth into the heavens appeals for superior beings to offer help – or at least wisdom – to benighted (and apparently doomed) humanity. When told that it sounded a lot like ‘prayer,’ Sasha would smile. and nod. We disagreed over the wisdom or courtesy of his Yoohoo Messages, beamed from the great dish at Evpatoria, without consultation by anyone else. But if I could choose between his optimistic cosmos and the one I deem more likely, I would choose his, hands down. Perhaps – (can anyone say for sure?) – he’s finally discovered that answer.

An eloquent thought. As for me, I’ll continue to argue for informed, multidisciplinary debate and discussion in the international arena before we send further targeted messages out into the Great Silence. But in the midst of that debate, heated as it remains, I’ll miss Sasha’s voice. He probably couldn’t reach ETI even with the Evpatoria dish, but God knows he tried.