We're sending a message to (hypothetical) aliens

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Nov 17, 2017

As we continue to search the universe for extraterrestrial life, some scientists aren’t waiting for biosignatures or radio signals from beyond, but are going vice versa on the whole “E.T. phone home” thing and trying to get in touch with aliens that may or may not exist.

Luyten’s star or GJ 273 is a red dwarf orbited by two planets, and the one known as GJ 273b is a “super-Earth” that could have the conditions that are necessary to spawn life—at least as we know it. Whether hypothetical life forms know we exist 12.36 light-years away is unknown. Earth certainly hasn’t gotten any messages from the GJ 273 system, but recently, a team of scientists and artists echoed the Golden Records that took off with Voyager 1 and 2 and beamed one over themselves.

So what is it that we’re sending over there, and will the recipients (if there are any) understand? The binary code message, a collaboration between METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, and the Spanish technology, music, and creativity festival Sónar, combines a math and science tutorial with 33 short musical tracks. It was beamed out via the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) radio antenna at two different radio frequencies, because you just don’t know what kind of reception they have on the other side. At least the proximity of the GJ 273 system to Earth means that if we do get a response, we could get it relatively soon, as in around a decade.


METI International is an alien-hunting nonprofit that believes in active communication, even if it ends up being one-sided. METI president Douglas Vakoch feels that whether or not anyone answers, this message is a prototype for future extraterrestrial communications, as he told

 "To me, the big success of the project will come if, 25 years from now, there's someone who remembers to look [for a response],” Vakoch said of the Lyten’s star project, aka Sónar Calling GJ 273b. “If we could accomplish that, that would be a radical shift of perspective."

Getting a mystery message in 25 years may be too much of a quantum leap. The SETI (search for extraterrestrial life) community is skeptical of Vakoch’s optimism and the METI, or “active SETI” strategy as opposed to searching for alien signals. Then there’s the issue of what will answer us, if anything answers us at all. It could be a hostile civilization that may want to either swipe all our resources or annihilate Earth. Just ask Stephen Hawking.

Whatever unknown beings we could possibly be reaching out to, this is still only the first phase of Sónar Calling GJ 273b. We can only wait to see who will pick up.