Will Dooling, MJLST Staffer
November 16th marks the 43rd anniversary of the Arecibo message, an attempt to broadcast a powerful radio signal from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico to the heart of the Messier 13 galaxy, more than 25,000 light years away. The Arecibo message was largely ceremonial, or experimental, no one seriously expects to hear back. However, the experiment posed interesting questions about how, exactly, humans ought to go about broadcasting messages to extraterrestrials, and who gets to speak for humanity.
If these questions seem far-fetched, that is only because we, as a society, have grown less ambitious in our hopes for space exploration. In the heady days of the early space race, these questions were seriously considered by NASA and the UN. The Arecibo Message was not a lone experiment: both the Pioneer and Voyager space probes, launched at about the same time as the Arecibo message, carried plaques designed to be easily deciphered by whoever, or whatever, would happen upon them in the future. Four decades later, well into the 21st century, we have the first signs of a robust private space industry and serious proposals in place for mining asteroids and lunar tourism but we still have not resolved the questions posed by the Arecibo Message. Who gets to speak for humanity? Should we even be broadcasting right now?
Currently, several large-scale projects are in place with the primary purpose of locating extraterrestrial life in solar systems beyond our own. By far the most ambitious are the continuing efforts of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. SETI is a United States nonprofit organization funded almost entirely by private charitable donations. Some of its largest donors include tech giants William Hewlitt, David Packard, and Paul Allen. SETI largely devotes its time to hunting for radio signals using telescope arrays all over the world. SETI uses this approach because it is relatively easy to hunt for unusual radio signals. A few nations have tried more direct attempts: NASA’s space-based Kepler telescope, and a related French mission called COROT, both launched in part to analyze the chemical composition of planets in nearby solar systems, to see if they could detect chemical compounds that could only form on planets with complex biospheres. FAST (the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope), completed in 2016, is the largest conventional radio receiver on earth, it was built by China in part to hunt for extraterrestrial radio sources in a manner similar to the US’s SETI.
All these are attempts to locate extraterrestrial life. What should we do if we find any, and should we be sending any more messages in the meantime? The past few years have seen a renewed interest in actively contacting extraterrestrials via Arecibo-like radio broadcasts. (See for example 2017’s Tromsø broadcast from a radio observatory in Norway to the nearby red dwarf star GJ 273). There have even been proposed commercial broadcasts where customers could pay for the novel experience of having personal messages broadcast into space. This increased interest in broadcasting has provoked some controversy: In 2016, a group of prominent “futurists” including astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz and Tesla CEO Elon Musk signed and circulated a letter objecting to any active attempts to contact extraterrestrial life. The letter expressed concern that the content of any deliberate communications should result from international consensus not “a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment.” The letter called for “vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.” It opened with an even more dire observation: “We know nothing of ETI’s [Extraterrestrial Intelligence’s] intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”
Ultimately, active communication with extraterrestrial life is an issue rather like the militarization of space and climate change. It is an international problem that requires international regulatory solutions. Individual actors have little incentive to self-regulate: the presence of any single unregulated actor makes the regulation ineffective. Neither the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space nor the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has taken a position on attempts to broadcast to extraterrestrial civilizations, though they could,and perhaps they should.
It is possible this is not an issue worth considering. It is possible that we are alone in the universe and there is nothing out there to hear us, through this would raise troubling questions of its own. It would mean humanity was a freak exception in an otherwise empty universe. It would mean that every other planet, around every other star, was completely devoid of life. It would be, in a word, weird. The alternative, only slightly less weird, is that something out there has the potential to hear us someday. In the meantime, perhaps we should engage in “vigorous international debate” on this issue while it is still merely speculative.