Over four decades have passed since the original Golden Records were blasted into deep space onboard the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in one of humanity's first efforts to communicate with alien species. Now, scientists are looking to put together a new edition of the message to provide potential extraterrestrial life with another snapshot of planet Earth in the 21st century.
The original Golden Records were like a message in a bottle thrown out into the universe with the hope of providing extraterrestrial lifeforms with insights into today's human society and our planet's story.
They consisted of two golden-plated phonograph records that contained audio and images designed to portray what life on Earth was all about, one placed aboard each Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
The contents of the record were selected by a committee led by none other than Carl Sagan. They settled on a collection of spoken greetings from 55 languages, music from an array of cultures, scientific diagrams, images of the natural world and human culture, plus mathematical definitions.
If humanity were to release a new edition of the Golden Records, what might we change about the original message produced in the 1970s? A new research article sets out to answer that question in a project they call Message in a Bottle (MIAB).
It’s still in its early phases, so the team is currently outlining the broader vision of the mission, and the exact contents have not yet been discussed. The ultimate aim, however, is to launch one copy of the MIAB into space onboard a future space mission and keep another copy on Earth.
“While the odds of an extraterrestrial entity receiving our communiqué are slim, the replicated version safeguarded on Earth will offer invaluable insights about our civilization and its legacy to succeeding generations or, potentially, to intelligent species that might one day visit our planet,” the study authors write.
Unlike the originals, the new message could feature videos as it will allow "outsiders" to observe humanity with much greater depth than a still image or audio recording. The message might also include other modern forms of media, like games or computer code.
However, the problem still stands on how to create a universally understandable message. On the extremely slim chance this message is seen by an intelligent extraterrestrial species, how do we communicate with them? Do they understand the world through visual and audio information like us, or do they perceive the universe in a completely unimaginable way? Would they even be able to decipher the difference between music and a child saying "hello"?
To overcome this hurdle, the researchers recommend creating a system whereby the information can be unraveled in gradual stages, starting with the fundamentals of life on Earth and progressing towards more complex aspects of human society and science.
“The message will be hierarchical: each layer serving as the key to unlock the next, more complex layer, guided by the principle that each should be understandable and informative. In this way, earlier layers of video provide context for later layers,” they explain.
Ultimately, the MIAB could be an enticing advertisement for our species and its achievements, as well as a time capsule to document our experience. After all, this was the original spirit of Sagan's Golden Records in the 1970s.
“Our goal is to share our collective knowledge, emotions, innovations, and aspirations in a way that provides a universal, yet contextually relevant, understanding of human society, the evolution of life on Earth, and our hopes and concerns for the future,” the study authors write.
“It is crucial to show humans as an intellectual, emotional, caring species worthy of interacting with regardless of the distance, time, and energy required initiating a response.”
However, it does raise the question of whether we should be brutally honest about humanity’s darker side. Do we tell the would-be aliens about our devastating wars, our disrespect for the natural world, and our psychological shortcomings?
The answer is not yet clear.
The research article is published in the journal AGU Earth and Space Science.