The Arecibo message—beamed via interstellar radio in 1974 from its namesake telescope—was “humanity’s first attempt to send out a missive capable of being understood by extraterrestrial intelligence,” per Scientific American, which reports on efforts to develop a sequel, nicknamed “Beacon in the Galaxy.” Last month, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab proposed a design for a new transmission, which builds on previous efforts to convey information about earthling science. Importantly, it “also features a freshly designed return address that will help any alien listeners pinpoint our location in the galaxy so they can—hopefully—kick off an interstellar conversation” (or—hopefully not—come and eat us).
What to say and how to say it? Assuming anyone who receives the signal already has advanced scientific knowledge, the “what” is a matter of choosing content with universal appeal, such as a numeric system or DNA sequence. The “how” part is “far messier.” Written language is basically useless; even our numeric symbols are “entirely arbitrary.” Like many predecessors, the Beacon team puts its faith in bitmap design, using binary code to create a pixelated image.
“The on/off, present/absent nature of a binary seems like it would be recognized by any intelligent species.” The proposal frontloads the message with basic science, but it also includes some imagery, on the off-chance ET eyeballs work like ours. On a very practical level, the Arecibo telescope was recently destroyed in a freak disaster. Potential alternatives were designed to receive, not transmit, and retrofitting them is no trivial matter. (Read the full story.)