The WOW Signal Probably Didn’t Come from Aliens, or Comets as You Recently Heard

On August 15th, 1977, astronomers using the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University detected a 72-second radio signal coming from space. This powerful signal, which quickly earned the nickname the “Wow! signal”, appeared to be coming from the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation, and some went so far as to suggest that it might be extra-terrestrial in origin.

Since then, the Wow! signal has been an ongoing source of controversy among SETI researchers and astronomers. While some have maintained that it is evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI), others have sought to find a natural explanation for it. And thanks a team of researchers from the Center of Planetary Science (CPS), a natural explanation may finally have been found.

In the past, possible explanations have ranged from asteroids and exoplanets to stars and even signals from Earth – but these have all been ruled out. And then in 2016, the Center for Planetary Science – a Florida-based non-profit scientific and astronomical organization – proposed a hypothesis arguing that a comet and/or its hydrogen cloud could be the cause.

This was based on the fact that the Wow! signal was transmitting at a frequency of 1,420 MHz, which happens to be the same frequency as hydrogen. This explanation was also appealing because the movement of the comet served as a possible explanation for why the signal has not been detected since. To validate this hypothesis, the CPS team reportedly conducted 200 observations using a 10-meter radio telescope.

This telescope, they claim, was equipped with a spectrometer and a custom feed horn designed to collect a radio signal centered at 1420.25 MHz. Between Nov. 27th, 2016, and Feb. 24th, 2017, they monitored the area of space where the Wow! signal was detected, and found that a pair of Solar comets (which had not been discovered in 1977) happened to conform to their observations, and could therefore have been the source.

Spectra obtained from these comets – P/2008 Y2(Gibbs) and 266/P Christensen – indicated that they were emitting a radio frequency that was consistent with the Wow! signal. As Antonio Paris (a professor at the CPS), described in a recent paper that appeared in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences:

“The investigation discovered that comet 266/P Christensen emitted a radio signal at 1420.25 MHz. All radio emissions detected were within 1° (60 arcminutes) of the known celestial coordinates of the comet as it transited the neighborhood of the ‘Wow!’ Signal. During observations of the comet, a series of experiments determined that known celestial sources at 1420 MHz (i.e., pulsars and/or active galactic nuclei) were not within 15° of comet 266/P Christensen.”

The Wow! signal represented as “6EQUJ5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/NAAPO

The team also examined three other comets to see if they emitted similar radio signals. These comets – P/2013 EW90 (Tenagra), P/2016 J1-A (PANSTARRS), and 237P/LINEAR – were selected randomly from the JPL Small Bodies database, and were confirmed to emit a radio signal at 1420 MHz. Therefore, the results of this investigation conclude that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a Solar System body.

However, not everyone is convinced. In response to the paper, Yvette Cendes – a PhD student with the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto – wrote a lengthy response on reddit as to why it fails to properly address the Wow! signal. For starters, she cites how the research team measured the signal strength in terms of decibels:

“I have never, ever, EVER used dB in a paper, nor have I ever read a paper in radio astronomy that measured signal strength in dB (except perhaps in the context of an instrumentation paper describing the systems of a radio telescope, i.e. not science but engineering.) We use a different unit in astronomy for flux density, the Jansky (Jy), where 1 Jy= ?230 dBm/(m2·Hz). (dB is a log scale, and Janskys are not.)”

Another point of criticism is the lack of detail in the paper, which would make reproducing the results very difficult – a central requirement where scientific research is concerned. Specifically, they do not indicate where the 10-meter radio telescope they used came from – i.e. which observatory of facility it belonged to, or even if it belonged to one at all – and are rather vague about its technical specification.

Spectra obtained from an area in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation. Credit: The Center for Planetary Science

Last, but not least, there is the matter of the environment in which the observations took place, which are not specified. This is also very important for radio astronomy, as it raised the issue of interference. As Cendes put it:

“This might sound pedantic, but this is insanely important in radio astronomy, where most signals we ever search for are a tiny fraction of the man-made ones, which can be millions of times brighter than an astronomical signal. (A cell phone on the moon would be one of the brighter radio astronomy sources in the sky, to give you an idea!) Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) is super important for the field, so much that people can spend their careers on it (I’ve written a chapter on my thesis on this myself), and the “radio environment” of an observatory can be worth a paper in itself.”

Beyond these apparent incongruities, Cendes also states that the hypothesis for the experiment was flawed. Essentially, the Big Ear searched for the same signal for a period of 22 years, but found nothing. If the comet hypothesis held true, there should be an explanation as to why no trace of the signal was found until this time. Alas, one is lacking, as far as this most recent study is concerned.

“And now you likely have an idea on why one-off events are so hard to prove in science,” she claims. “But then, this is really the major reason the Wow! signal is unsolved to this day- without a plausible explanation, [without] additional data, we just will never know.”

Though it may be hard to accept, it is entirely possible that we may never know what the Wow! signal truly was – whether it was a one-off event, a naturally-occurring phenomena, or something else entirely. And if the comet hypothesis should prove to be unverifiable, then that is certainly good news for the SETI enthusiasts!

While the elimination of natural explanations doesn’t prove that things like Wow! signal are proof of alien civilizations, it at least indicates that this possibility cannot be ruled out just yet. And for those hopeful that evidence of intelligent life will be someday found, that’s really the best we can hope for… for now!

Further Reading: Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Astronomer Here!

Did We Arrive Early To The Universe’s Life Party?

The Fermi Paradox essentially states that given the age of the Universe, and the sheer number of stars in it, there really ought to be evidence of intelligent life out there. This argument is based in part on the fact that there is a large gap between the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and the age of our Solar System (4.5 billion years ago). Surely, in that intervening 9.3 billion years, life has had plenty of time to evolve in other star system!

Continue reading “Did We Arrive Early To The Universe’s Life Party?”

Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve?

The face of a jumping spider

Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.

METI International
METI International


At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.

Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.

Doug Vakoch, President METI Institute
Dr. Douglas Vakoch is a Professor of clinical psychology and the founder and president of METI International. Photo by Mara Lavitt, used with permission.

We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.

In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.
Dr. Anna Dornhaus
Dr. Anna Dornhaus is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, and a presenter at the Puerto Rico conference

For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.

But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.

The cathedral termite mound
Termite mounds demonstrate that architecture and agriculture are not unique to humans. Housing one to two million inhabitants, they can reach 5 meters (17 feet) or more in height, and also extend beneath the surface of the ground. They are organized to ensure that appropriate levels of oxygen, moisture, and temperature are maintained. Although the inhabitants of a termite mound collectively weigh only 15 kilograms (33 lb), a typical mound will, in an average year, move a quarter of a metric ton (550 lb) of soil, and several tons of water. Using carefully prepared plant materials, termites “farm” a species of fungus that occupies eight times more space in the mound than they do. Photo taken by Brain Voon Yee Yap of cathedral termite mounds in the Northern Territories of Australia for open use.

Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.

Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.

The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.

Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.

Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.

There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.

Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.

For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.

Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.

In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.

For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.

Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.

Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.

Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging. Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Tonn, S. (2015) Termites are teaching architects to design super-efficient skyscrapers. Wired Magazine.

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” II: Questioning the Hart-Tipler Conjecture

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason we’ve found no evidence of alien civilizations is because there are none out there.

It’s become a legend of the space age. The brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi, during a lunchtime conversation at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, is supposed to have posed a conundrum for proponents of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

If space traveling aliens exist, so the argument goes, they would spread through the galaxy, colonizing every habitable world. They should then have colonized Earth. They should be here, but because they aren’t, they must not exist.

This is the argument that has come to be known as “Fermi’s paradox”. The problem is, as we saw in the first installment, Fermi never made it. As his surviving lunch companions recall (Fermi himself died of cancer just four years later, and never published anything on the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence), he simply raised a question, “Where is everybody?” to which there are many possible answers.

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” II: Questioning the Hart-Tipler Conjecture”

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” I: A Lunchtime Conversation- Enrico Fermi and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the lunchtime conversation that started it all!

It’s become a kind of legend, like Newton and the apple or George Washington and the cherry tree. One day in 1950, the great physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with colleagues at the Fuller Lodge at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and came up with a powerful argument about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the so-called “Fermi paradox”.

But like many legends, it’s only partly true. Robert Gray explained the real history in a recent paper in the journal Astrobiology. Enrico Fermi was the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for physics, led the team that developed the world’s first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago, and was a key contributor to the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. The Los Alamos Lab where he worked was founded as the headquarters of that project.

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” I: A Lunchtime Conversation- Enrico Fermi and Extraterrestrial Intelligence”

Communicating Across the Cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the Darkness

Over the last 20 years, astronomers have discovered several thousand planets orbiting other stars. We now know that potentially habitable Earth-like planets are abundant in the cosmos. Such findings lend a new plausibility to the idea that intelligent life might exist on other worlds. Suppose that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers succeed in their quest to find a message from a distant exoplanet. How much information can we hope to receive or send? Can we hope to decipher its meaning? Can humans compose interstellar messages that are comprehensible to alien minds?

Such concerns were the topic of a two day academic conference on interstellar messages held at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California; ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’. The conference drew 17 speakers from a wide variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, philosophy, radio astronomy, and art. This article is the first of a series of installments about the conference. Today, we’ll explore the ways in which our society is already sending messages to extraterrestrial civilizations, both accidentally and on purpose.

Sending radio messages over sizable interstellar distances is feasible with present day technology. According to SETI Institute radio astronomer Seth Shostak, who presented at the conference, we are already — by accident — constantly signaling our presence to any extraterrestrial astronomers that might exist in our neighborhood of the galaxy. Some radio signals intended for domestic uses leak into space. The most powerful come from radars used for military purposes, air traffic control, and weather forecasting. Because these radars sweep across broad swaths of the sky, their signals travel out into space in many directions.

With radio telescopes no more sensitive than those astronomers on Earth use today, extraterrestrials out to distances of tens of light years could detect them and figure out that they were artificial. The Arecibo radar telescope in Puerto Rico is designed specifically to send a narrow beam of radio waves into space, usually to bounce them off celestial bodies and learn about their surfaces. For a receiver within its beam, it could be detected hundreds of light-years away.

FM radio and television broadcasts also leak out into space, but they are weaker and couldn’t be detected more than about one tenth of a light year away with present day human technology. This is quite a bit less than the distance to the nearest star. The size and sensitivity of radio telescopes is progressing rapidly. An alien civilization just a few centuries more advanced than us in radio technology could detect even these weak signals over vast distances in the galaxy. As our signals spread outward at the speed of light, they will reach progressively larger numbers of stars and planets, any one of which might be home to ETI. If they really are out there, they are likely to find us eventually.

Humans have been fascinated with formulating messages for extraterrestrials for a surprisingly long time. Eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists drew up proposals to make huge fire pits or plantings in the shapes of geometric figures that they hoped would be visible in the telescopes of the inhabitants of neighboring worlds. In the early days of radio, attempts were made to contact Mars and Venus.

As prospects for intelligent life within the solar system dimmed, attention turned to the stars. In the early 1970’s the first two spacecraft to escape the sun’s gravitational pull, Pioneer 10 and 11, each carried an engraved plaque designed to tell aliens where Earth is, and what human beings look like. Voyager 1 and 2 carried a more ambitious message of images and sounds encoded on a phonograph record. Both the Pioneer plaques and the Voyager records were devised by teams led by astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, both SETI pioneers. In 1974, the powerful Arecibo radio telescope beamed a brief 3 minute message towards a star cluster 21,000 light years away as part of a dedication ceremony for a major upgrade. The binary coded message was an image, including a stick figure of a human, our solar system, and some chemicals important to earthly life. The distant target was chosen simply because it was overhead at the time of the ceremony.

The plaque affixed to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, the first spacecraft to leave our solar system. In the upper left corner is a diagram depicting the hydrogen atom, the most abundant element in the universe. The diagram symbolizes the transition of the electron from a spin-up to a spin-down state. This transition is responsible for radio emissions at the wavelength of 21 cm by clouds of hydrogen in interstellar space. This phenomenon is familiar to radio astronomers and provides a distance standard for indicating the size of the humans.  In the middle left is a representation of position of the sun with respect to the center of the galaxy and 14 pulsars.  At the bottom is a map of the solar system indicating the origin of the spacecraft at the sun's third planet.  The planets relative distances from the sun are given as binary numbers with the unit being one tenth of Mercury's distance from the sun.  At the right is a depiction of a human couple with the man's arm raised in gesture of friendly greeting and the pioneer spacecraft drawn in outline as a backdrop.
The plaque affixed to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, the first spacecraft to leave our solar system. In the upper left corner is a diagram depicting the hydrogen atom, the most abundant element in the universe. The diagram symbolizes the transition of the electron from a spin-up to a spin-down state. This transition is responsible for radio emissions at the wavelength of 21 cm by clouds of hydrogen gas in interstellar space. This phenomenon is very familiar to radio astronomers and provides a distance standard used to indicate the sizes of the human beings. In the middle left is a representation of position of the sun with respect to the center of the galaxy and 14 pulsars. At the bottom is a map of the solar system indicating the origin of the spacecraft as the sun’s third planet. The relative distances of the planets from the sun are indicated as binary numbers with a unit one tenth the distance of Mercury from the sun. At the right is a depiction of a human couple with the man’s arm raised in a gesture of friendly greeting and the pioneer spacecraft drawn in outline as a backdrop NASA Ames Research Center.

Cultural anthropologist and conference speaker Klara Anna Capova said that in recent years, messaging to extraterrestrials has moved beyond science and become a commercial enterprise. In 1999 and 2003, a private company solicited content from the general public and transmitted these ‘Cosmic Call’ messages to several nearby sun-like stars from the 70 meter radio telescope of the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in Crimea, Ukraine.

In 2009, another private company transmitted 25,000 messages, collected via a website, towards the red dwarf star Gliese 581, 20 light years away. In 2008, a Dorito’s commercial was beamed to a sun-like star 42 light years away, and in 2009 Penguin books transmitted 1000 messages as part of a book promotion. In 2010, a greeting, spoken in the fictional Klingon language, was beamed towards the star Arcturus, 37 light years away. The message was sent to promote the opening of what was billed as the first authentic Klingon opera on Earth. As one conference speaker noted, there are no regulations on the transmission or content of such messages.

Actively messaging extraterrestrials is a controversial practice, and the director of the Evpatoria Center, Alexander Zaitsev, has faced criticism from some members of the scientific community for his actions. Traditionally, SETI researchers have simply listened for alien messages. A received message might allow humans to learn something about the nature and motives of its extraterrestrial senders. That might give us a basis for deciding whether or not it was wise and prudent to reply.

Drake’s Arecibo message, by intent, was beamed at a star cluster tens of thousands of light years away and was meant simply to demonstrate the capacity for interstellar messaging. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft likewise will not reach the stars for tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, the recent transmissions were directed at nearby stars, from which we might receive a reply in less than a century. At the conference, Seth Shostak advanced what he confessed was a provocative position. He said we shouldn’t worry too much about the recent transmissions, because the much weaker signals that constantly emanate from Earth would be detectable by extraterrestrial civilizations with more advanced radio technology anyway. “That horse”, he said “has already left the barn”.

In the next installment, we will explore the SETI Institute’s current and planned efforts to conduct our human search for extraterrestrial signals. We will consider the limits of our own signaling capacity, and learn that the amount of information we could send the aliens is truly vast.

References and Further Reading:

Communicating across the Cosmos: How can we make ourselves understood by other civilizations in the galaxy (2014), SETI Institute Conference Website

N. Atkinson (2008), Message from Earth beamed to alien world, Universe Today.

F. Cain (2013), How could we find aliens? The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), Universe Today.

M. J. Crowe (1986) The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds From Kant to Lowell, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

C. Sagan, F. Drake, A. Druyan, T. Ferris, J. Lomberg, L. S. Sagan (1978), Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, Random House, New York, NY.

W. T. Sullivan III; S. Brown, and C. Wetherill, (1978) Eavesdropping: The radio signature of Earth, Science 199(4327): 377-388.