Scientists Are Asking Kids to Write a Message to Send into Space


Mar 4, 2019


Image courtesy of @yukai_du via Instagram

The scientists working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have put out a call to children across the globe — to write a message to aliens. On the 45th anniversary of the first time humanity intentionally tried to contact extraterrestrials, the Arecibo message will be updated to reflect our world, and will center the voices of children.

In 1974, the first message into space was beamed from the observatory’s 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope. In binary code, Dr. Frank Drake (with help from others, including Carl Sagan) crafted a message meant to give extraterrestrials some understanding of humans and the Earth itself. It included numbers (one to 10); the elements that DNA comprises (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus); a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA; a map of the solar system; the human population of Earth; and a figure of a man. The message was aimed at a star cluster about 25,000 light years from Earth, meaning that even if aliens did receive the message and sent one back to us, it would take another 25,000 years to reach us.

It was a momentous occasion, when we sent that first intentional transmission into space. Now, however, armed with a whole lot of information that we didn’t have before, including knowledge of exoplanets in the “Goldilocks zone” — that is, just the right temperature for life to evolve — researchers think the time is ripe to try once more. And the old message definitely needs an update; the size of Earth’s human population has certainly increased and the information provided about DNA has been disproven. But this time, the message we send out is up to kids.

The Arecibo Observatory has put out an open callto international teams of 10 students (and one mentor/teacher) to design the new message. The call is in binary code, which teams will have to crack in order to unlock the registration form. The idea is for kids, aged four to 16 years old, to learn about the scientific method and space sciences, while solving brain-puzzles and collaborating with scientists. The winning 20-page proposal would include the group’s message, as well as address the peaceful uses of space technology and the risks of exposure to humanity. Suitable targets for the broadcast, the environmental impact of energy used in transmission, and the frequency, coding, etc., would also be things to bear in mind, the call suggests.

The ask is a tough one — but then so is the idea behind the project itself. Many scientists have spoken against sending the first broadcast, or attempting contact with extraterrestrials at all. In 2017, Stephen Hawking warned that alien life could be “rapacious marauders roaming the cosmos in search of resources to plunder, and planets to conquer and colonize.” Communicating with them, and providing details about humans and the Earth could potentially end in world annihilation. But for others, the Arecibo message offers hope; if we’re the ones harming the Earth, maybe another species can provide us with the tools to save it.

No matter what our fears or hopes, science will always search for the truth, and the Arecibo message is just a manifestation of that scientific drive. What’s inspiring is the acknowledgement that everyone, even children, have a stake in what we want to say about ourselves. Everyone’s voice matters, and this competition is leveling the playing field: Humanity can be represented by a 15-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh, as much as it can from a 52-year-old scientist in Puerto Rico.

The deadline for team registrations is March 21, so if anyone’s planning on sending a postcard to aliens, you better get cracking.


Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.


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