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Saturday, February 14, 2015

SHOULD WE ANNOUNCE OUR EXISTENCE TO ALIENS?

Last week I had a posting on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  This morning I noticed an article by Seth Borenstein (left) focusing on the third active option:  announcing our presence to aliens in our Universe.   The other two are sending humans (or robots) to Mars and beyond, and merely listening to signals hopefully being sent by those aliens to us.  There is a fourth option, which is to do nothing...but I hate people who have no initiative nor romance.

Anyway, the American Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday hosted in San Jose a convention which included presentations on whether we should try to communicate with possible alien civilizations.  Just listening is cheap and safe, something I have long advocated.  But sending messages into the unknown is a concept actually feared by some.  Stephen Hawking, for one, whose attitude is that "the consequences could be catastrophic."  Elon Musk (left), co-founder of Pay Pal and head of SpaceX and Tesla, actually has a petition, with Geoffrey Marcy (rightwho found the first extrasolar planet and has confirmed more them than anyone else), cautioning against announcing our presence, worried that extraterrestrials could be hostile.

I have no such fears, for any society so advanced as to be able to hear our signals and have the capability to send an armada to Planet Earth should have found the solution to universal peace.  Keep in mind that the odds of any such civilization traveling at current technological speeds (and having an energy source capable of doing this) to us in any timely manner is beyond the pale.  Let me explain:
  • Voyager 1 is traveling at  38,000 miles/hour, and would take 73,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away.  We have faster moving probes in space, but they only reach maximum speeds when closely approaching something like the Sun.
    • However, there are no priority Earth-sized candidates this close to us.  
    • If intercepted by an alien, the craft has on board a golden record (click on it if you have five hours to spare) featuring greetings from us, including works by Mozart and Chuck Berry.
  • Voyager is heading in the general direction of Gliese 445, which is 17.5 light years away, which means it will take close to another 300,000 years to get there.
  • So let's say that an intelligent society then sees all this data, which would be in the year 75,000 or so, and sends a fleet to attack us, reaching Planet Earth around the year 143,000.  By then we should have the capability to defend ourselves.
  • But, okay, let's say they are so advanced that instead of a space speed in the range of 38,000 MPH, they can travel 100 times faster (again, good luck on an energy source), they would get here in the year 74,000.  That long ago in history Homo sapiens were just in an early stage of appearing.
  • But, aha, we have been sending television messages out into space since Hitler's 1936 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony speech.  This signal would have been traveling at the speed of light now for almost 79 years, which means there might be intelligent life out there alarmed at seeing the danger from Earth.  Understanding that this info would only be  heading out to a limited portion of space in terms of beaming direction, there are  up to 5000 stars with solar systems in range.  If even one of them had a truly advanced civilization, and had by now found a way to turn a wormhole into instant travel almost anywhere, we could any day now be facing another Independence Day (that 1996 film).

But the prospects of all the above happening are nil, or it would have happened by now.  So back to the qualms of Hawking and Musk, I wish Douglas Vakoch (left), director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute well.  He is today hosting in Silicon Valley a gathering on calling-all aliens about what to say and where to find funding to do this.  

For those wanting to stop this kind of nonsense, it is too late.  Not only Hitler, but in 1974 from Arecibo  in Puerto Rico a broadcast was aimed at a star cluster 25,000 light years away, the Russians sent out a message from Crimea in 1999 and NASA in 2008 beamed over their Deep Space Network on the 50th anniversary of their founding towards the North Star Polaris the Beatles' recording of Across the Universe.

Like it or not, if there are aliens out there, chances are they know we're here, and this number will only increase exponentially over time even if we do nothing about actively beaming out signals.  If space technology does not make a quantum leap beyond travel exceeding 100,000 miles/hour (we're not even close to that at this point), if aliens fail to attain near speed of light travel (186,000 miles/second or 670,616,629 MPH) or don't succeed in tunneling through some space-time warp for inter-galactic travel (our closest galaxy, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away...that's millions of light years) we need not fear any attack from a predatory civilization.  Which would be too bad, for chances are they would be peaceful anyway.

Which leads me back to where I began my SETI quest at the NASA Ames Research Center in 1976.  Of all the options--send humans into interstellar space, beam signals to alert the Universe we are here, do nothing, and detect/interpret alien signals--clearly the latter is the only option that is both cost effective and potentially beneficial.  Just think, Encyclopedia Galactica could well be streaming unto us with the solution for World Peace, clue on how to control fusion and the cure for the common cold.

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