5 Crazy Ways We're Trying To Talk To Aliens (Right Now)
Scientists are divided on whether it'd be a good idea to contact aliens. Maybe they'll come to cure the common cold, or maybe they'll come to introduce us to the exciting world of space slavery. The argument is kind of moot, however, as we're already flooding space with so many messages that humanity's probably in every intergalactic empire's spam folder. Here are but a few of the far-out ways we've tried to contact the far out ...
There Are Already Ads In Space (Of Course)
How to greet our future extraterrestrial overlords is a question that has puzzled space nerds for ages. But a company called the Deep Space Communications Network, with grand boldness unburdened by responsibility, has already shot out its answer on how to best simulate our everyday culture: By sending aliens tons and tons of internet ads.
For those of you who may not know, Craigslist is essentially an online personals section where users / serial killers can post ads for secondhand cars, weird sex stuff, roommate hunts, weird sex stuff, landscaping, and mostly weird sex stuff. And when, in 2005, the DSCN pulled the stunt of beaming the first ever website to the stars, for some insane reason, they decided to go with the website that's been used as evidence in more criminal investigations than all others combined. The transmission held over a hundred thousand listings from Craigslist, along with an audio recording explaining that all this junk is currently available on earth. DSCN's vice president defended the choice by saying that he felt Craigslist "represents a wide cross-section of society" -- and he's right, if the goal were to let aliens know we're an entire species obsessed with getting a good deal on a dubiously stained couch.
Unfortunately, this move opened the previously untapped alien demographic for soulless corporations, so of course others have gotten in on the action. Doritos (yes, Doritos) launched their own interstellar communication project in 2008. Dubbed the Doritos Broadcast Project, Doritos picked one 30-second ad from a competition and beamed it from the Arctic Circle at a specific star system a mere 40-odd light years away. And for some reason, this was the ad they went with:
Even ignoring how dangerous it is to depict Doritos as a sentient lifeform intelligent enough to have tribal religion -- no less when contacting aliens -- that's the dumbest thing we've ever shot to space since those earthworms. Yet the head of the Doritos Broadcast Project (also known as the Cool Ranch Think Tank, we assume) is wildly optimistic about the ad, saying that we "shouldn't be too surprised if the first aliens start arriving on planet Earth immediately demanding a bag of Doritos." That or the head of the head of the Doritos Broadcast Project. We can see why he'd prefer his own prediction.
A Group Of Scientists Wants To Light Up Space With Lasers
As we're talking about coming into contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms, all this chatter about data and signals might seem a bit boring. So how about instead we talk about humanity's efforts to shoot the sky with a big cannon solely to see if anyone notices it?
The scientific community's version of a diss track, METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was started by a group of scientists who were frustrated with the NASA-funded SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and it's failure to find any space emperors to chat with.
METI's goal is simple but audacious: Blast a laser brighter than the sun into space for a nanosecond and see if there's an alien civilization around advanced enough to pick up on it. It's the cosmic equivalent of firing your revolver in the air to get everyone's attention in the saloon.
Why would this work? Because even we could probably manage in reverse. In 2011, astronomers spotted something in orbit around a distant star nicknamed Tabby's Star which might be a giant space station or collection of space stations. They spotted this potential "alien megastructure" using a technique called transit photometry, which allows us to identify planets by noticing how their orbit blocks the light of other stars. So the theory is that if we clever monkey folk can already gather data from such minor disturbances (even if unintentionally), imagine how easy it'll be for intelligent lifeforms to pick up on an artificial laser beams blasting through the sky like we're trying to turn the beautiful cosmos into a Led Zeppelin concert!
A Gas-Sniffing AI Could Tell Us Which Planets To Spam
The problem of space communication is that star systems are, like, really far away and stuff. By the time radio signals can reach other planets, they've long since orbited out of the trajectory. What we really need is a system to continually update the best targets and then keep sending them messages over and over again. Basically, we have to turn our planet into an alarm clock and hope the aliens come over just so they can hit the snooze button.
While radio waves may seem hopelessly old-fashioned for contacting hyper-intelligent species (who probably prefer podcasts anyway), they're some of the strongest and most resilient signals we can muster, which at least increases the chance drastically of something or someone picking them up. Carl Sagan began this process in the 1970s, when he and the head of SETI sent out a series of radio wave transmissions that could only carry some very crude ASCII art.
But the problem is still that we don't where exactly to send those signals. Fortunately, there's a robot sniffer dog that can help us. Researchers at University College London created an AI dedicated to finding likely alien habitats, RobERt (Robotic Exoplanet Recognition). RobERt's brain is called a deep-belief neural network (DBN), which works just like the human brain, except a bazillion times more efficiently. This big brain is constantly identifying planetary gases, which let's RobERt decide whether a planet could potentially support human and, by extension, extraterrestrial life. So yes, the Smelloscope from Futurama is now real. RobERt is right about 99.7 percent of the time, according to testing, which means it's such an amazing gas detector that it could tell its operator's lunch merely from smelling his farts.
Targeting planets sniffed out by RobERt, scientists then send strong electromagnetic waves into the interstellar wind towards them. It's a little like throwing rocks blindly off a bridge and hoping they land in a boat, and then hoping that boat turns around and comes back to see who the hell is throwing rocks, but it's more exact than picking a random point in the sky and trying to sell it Doritos. But it's a game of patience. It could take centuries, millennia, or even longer before we get a hit. Researchers are therefore suggesting building a sort of automatic "alarm clock" system, which would kick in after the collapse of humanity and continue sending regular transmissions until the end of time, with the hopes of drawing some star-striding archaeologists to our dead planet. Having our bleached skulls displayed in an alien museum? Sign us up!
You Could Actually Phone Space
Remember when phones were mainly used to make calls instead of Googling stuff to win arguments at parties? Yeah, us neither. But back in the 2000s, a group of rad radio engineers decided to create a new phone frontier and find the last creatures in the Universe still willing to accept a call.
In 2005, a group called the Civilian Space eXploration Team (CSXT) built a giant antenna, called the "Intergalactic Transmitter," which runs 24/7, much like a convenience store or select Subway locations. Simultaneously, they launched the very straightforward website talktoaliens.com (now sadly defunct / shut down by the shadow NSA for knowing too much). Through the website, visitors could leave text messages or place phone calls (at premium sex hotline prices), which the CSXT then beamed into a random direction in space in the vain hope that they'd randomly phone E.T.'s home.
Meanwhile, a radio telescope in Ukraine approached space calling a bit more methodically. Pointing their telescope in the direction of nearby star systems with the highest chances of alien life, they've sent out a few large collections of messages. One of these packets was called "Teenage Message to the Stars," and was completely composed by teens. Which might be a good thing, if it turns out any pugnacious space-faring civilizations are deeply sensitive and susceptible to mockery.
Now, is it a good idea that any dweeb with an internet connection could have potentially become the de facto ambassador of humanity to another sentient race? That's not something to worry about. Even the Talk to Aliens team acknowledged that with a range of only a few light years, there's very little chance any honest-to-Xenu extraterrestrials will ever respond. It's probably better anyway that the first message sent to aliens most likely remains the beautifully crafted olive branch recorded by a Carl Sagan. Better that than the first-ever galactic voyagers we meet thinking we communicate solely through dick pics.
Send The Aliens The Whole Damn Internet
If we do wind up contacting aliens, it's best we make a good first impression before their proton cannons make the impression for us. To do that, we have to present them with the best of what humanity has to offer. So do we show them our science? Our art? Maybe some Brahms will lighten the mood? No. The most promising way to draw in aliens is not by cherry-picking our best moments, but simply dumping every single bit of dumb information about of our existence into their laps at once. We're talking, of course, about the internet.
Arguing the case for sending our cat GIFs into the beyond is Seth Shostak, the director of the Center for SETI Research, who argues that the internet has become the most complete documentation of the culture and history of planet Earth (for better or worse). We could literally shoot the internet into space with a laser beam which could send out all of this data in a matter of days. It's also self-decoding; the amount of written and spoken language is repeated millions of times over, so it can be used to translate itself, sort of like a Rosetta Stone of dank memes.
Why is this such an attractive option to scientists? For one, it doesn't make any declaration of intent, and it doesn't invite any kind of response, meaning aliens would be much less likely to misinterpret it. It would also put an end to the endlessly debatable dilemma of what message to send by just saying, "Screw it, send them everything and let them figure it out." And for those of us worried about shouting millions of racist Facebook rants to alien races, it's unlikely that Gleep Glorps from the Crab Nebula will have any way of relating to our culture in such a detailed way with their wholly incomprehensible alien minds. Still, we should at least cut out all those forum posts making fun of the aliens in Independence Day to be safe.
You can find Marina Reimann at Gamefully Unemployed on Twitch (@gamefully_Un), as well as various podcasts about movies, games, and unpopular opinions.
The best aliens we'll ever see are from the 1979 classic.
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