On October 10, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent 3,775 messages in the direction of Polaris, the North Star. This was part of a project called “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message”, which aimed to raise awareness about humanity’s role in the environmental changes our planet has experienced in the last few hundred years.
The project, spearheaded by Irish-born artist Paul Quast, asked the public to submit text-based answers to this question: “How will our present environmental interactions shape the future?”
The answers were then combined into a single 14-minute-long transmission and beamed towards the North Star by ESA’s deep-space tracking station at Cebreros in Spain.
Polaris was chosen not because it may or may not have aliens living nearby, but because it symbolized a mostly unchanging direction in the sky since it is located in the direction of true north. The unchanging part is not exactly true, though, as Earth’s axis slowly moves in a circle every 12,000 years.
Even if there are aliens around Polaris, they’ll have to wait a long time before listening to the message. The star is up to 433 light-years from Earth and these aliens would have gotten a lot more signals before then, including the famous Beatles’ song “Across the Universe”, which was beamed by NASA in 2008.
This latest message appears to be quite timely, as there have been several discussions on the safety of announcing our presence to alien civilizations.
“It's hard not to see this as gratuitously risky, especially as it would be undertaken for no other reason than to satisfy our deep intellectual curiosity,” said physicist Mark Buchanan in a recent Nature Physics issue, which was not related to this project.
“We have almost zero idea of whether aliens are likely to be dangerous, although the single history of evolving biological life that we know of – here on Earth – carries a strong theme of violent conflict, perpetual battle for resources and the oppression of weaker groups by stronger ones.”
Professor Hawking has expressed similar concerns in a recent documentary: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn't turn out so well.”
Although Hawking doesn’t want to flag our presence, he is one of the people behind the Breakthrough Listen project, which hopes to find alien civilizations. The project has recently got the backing of Chinese telescopes as well.