On this day 44 years ago, humans made their first concerted effort to make contact with aliens in the universe. And while it’ll be thousands of years before the message arrives anywhere of note, the event did help us consider our place in the cosmos.
This was the Arecibo Message, sent on November 16, 1974, from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The message was a series of radio waves, containing the equivalent of 210 bytes of data, sent towards a nearby group of stars called M13. It was honored today in a Google Doodle.
Located 22,000 light-years away, it’ll take that same amount of time for our message to actually reach this globular star cluster. Whether anyone could actually decipher the message, or whether there is anyone there to receive it, is another issue entirely.
The message was worked on by a number of scientists, including Frank Drake and the late Carl Sagan. It was essentially a string of “ones” and “zeroes”, transmitted over three minutes. In theory, an alien race receiving the message would be able to decode it.
If they did, they would find some information about humanity and our knowledge of the universe. The message contains the numbers 1 to 10, the atomic numbers of elements including hydrogen and carbon, and the formulae for the building blocks of DNA.
It also contains a representation of a double helix of DNA, a stick figure of a human being, the number of people on Earth (4 billion at the time), a map of our Solar System, and a drawing of the Arecibo radio telescope.
However, if you’re hoping for anyone to receive the message or for a response, you might be out of luck. By the time the message arrives at the location of M13 it was sent towards, the cluster of stars will have moved on. The message will arrive to no one.
The real purpose of the message was to show the power of the Arecibo radio telescope. "It was strictly a symbolic event, to show that we could do it," Donald Campbell from Cornell University, who worked on the Arecibo Observatory at the time, said back on the 25th anniversary of the event in 1999.
Still, it’s nice to know there’s a little bit of humanity making its way through the galaxy. The Arecibo Message has spawned many imitations, and continues to be a source of hope that there might be others out there. Who knows, maybe someone else has sent their own Arecibo Message our way too.