Stephen Hawking, along with a group called Breakthrough, launched two initiatives in July to try to find alien life elsewhere in the universe. Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire, is bankrolling the project.
The first part is called Breakthrough Initiative, and will see $100 million invested to search the skies using the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. It will be 50 times more sensitive than previous searches, and cover 10 times more space than anyone has ever tried before. That starts in 2016.
The second part of the initiative is called “Breakthrough Message” and will offer prizes totaling $1 million to whomever can come up with the best message to send in to space, in case alternate lifeforms are listening to Earth. Details of the competition have not yet been released, but according to the Breakthrough Initiatives website, they promise not to beam any messages in to space until “a wide-ranging debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations” has taken place.
The astronomers and philosophers at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) are now entering the contest. At a conference in Leeds last week, they discussed how the content of this message needs to be updated from what NASA sent up aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in the ’70s. According to Jill Stuart at the London School of Economics:
“We really need to rethink that with any messages we are sending out now. Attitudes have changed so much in just 40 years. I would be uncomfortable with sending out any images or messages that include Western-dominated material.”
She’s referring to this plaque (which was developed by Carl Sagan) that was included with Pioneer 10, which finished its 30-year mission to Jupiter in 2002:
If alien life exists, we’re not even sure it’ll have eyesight like ours that will let them see 2D pictures. Should we send them math formulas? Music? The SETI group had a hard time deciding if they’d even enter the competition, because some dudes have watched Predator way too many times.
“…the thinking was that the silence in the skies might be because alien civilizations are hiding from us, and that it might be stupid to attract attention,” said Anders Sandberg.
The nearest star system that could possibly hold life is 10 light years away, which means it could take at least 20 years for any missive we send out to space to reach the first group of maybe aliens. So sending up memes is right out, everyone. (I hope at least three of you just sadly closed the browser tab you were going to Rick Roll E.T. with.)