The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute recently announced that a beacon seemingly from a star system 94 light-years away reached the giant ear of a Russian telescope. Everyone immediately started screaming “ALIENS!”
Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s probably not aliens.
Scientists have made truly amazing space-discoveries in the last month alone. They’ve confirmed the existence of a potentially life-supporting planet in another solar system, gotten cozy with Jupiter, discovered a whole slew of exoplanets, and found a galaxy that could be made almost entirely of dark matter.
So, when someone says “ALIENS!” it’s like pulling the fire alarm for burnt popcorn. Or pulling the emergency brake in a subway car full of crickets. It’s overreaction. The scientific community’s response is not far from this:
Because the receivers used were making broad band measurements, there’s really nothing about this ‘signal’ that would distinguish it from a natural radio transient (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) There’s also nothing that could distinguish it from a satellite passing through the telescope field of view. All in all, it’s relatively uninteresting from a SETI standpoint […] It’s not our first time at this rodeo, so we know how it works.
Okay. Now that we’re done playing Scully, it’s time to go Mulder on this case and entertain the idea that it could be a highly advanced civilization attempting to communicate. What would they want to say?
Douglas A. Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at SETI Institute, outlined in his book Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence what another world would be trying to say to us via an isotropic beacon like SETI discovered this week, if such a thing were happening:
“ALF Was Here.”
A form of interstellar graffiti, this is like tagging your home world’s name on the wall of space future generations to see and go, “Who’s that?” and also “What kind of dick spray-painted the side of someone’s garage just because he could?” Cave-dwelling people did it, Mayans did it, we do it today. Why not aliens?
Vakoch’s “High Church” theory is that a civilization with this much achievement would want to proclaim, “We are the best. Recognize.”
A beacon sent out as a funeral pyre for a dying world. A dying civilization might send out one last prideful cry that they totally ruled, but are now screwed beyond help. This one’s inspired a Percy Bysshe Shelly sonnet about stumbling upon a statue in the desert:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It would take millennia for another civilization to contact us this way, but in a last-ditch attempt to save their own asses, another world might fling an SOS into the universe. Wouldn’t do much good, since we’re light years away.
They’re looking for religious converts and getting really ambitious about where they leave their pamphlets lying around.
All of these messages would have to originate from a Kardashev Type I or II civilization — a world that’s gotten very, very good at harnessing power from its sun and home planet, and is able to convert that energy into communication tools. It’d need 1013 watts of power, or all of the power used by all of mankind on Earth, New Scientist notes. Humankind is currently a Type 0 civilization, with a long way to go. We just got solar chargers on our backpacks, for christsakes.
SETI’s using the Allen Telescope Array in northern California to listen for more. Even if astronomers are cautious or downright dismissive of the repercussions of this signal, it’s started a lot of people thinking about science and space, and that’s not the worst outcome.