Too risky to phone ET? Too late -- NASA's tried it

Apr 28, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This undated handout photo shows the design of a plaque that was carried on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Stephen Hawking says it is too risky to try to talk to space aliens. Oops. Too late. NASA and others have already beamed several messages into deep space, trying to phone ET. NASA -- which two years ago, broadcast the Beatles song "Across the Universe" across the galaxy -- on Wednesday discussed its latest search strategy for life outside of Earth. It is more aimed at looking for simple life like bacteria in our solar system than fretting about potential alien overlords coming here. (AP-Photo/HO)

(AP) -- Stephen Hawking says it is too risky to try to talk to space aliens. Oops. Too late. NASA and others have already beamed several messages into deep space, trying to phone E.T.

The U.S. space agency, which two years ago broadcast the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into the cosmos, on Wednesday discussed its latest search strategy for life beyond Earth.

"The search for life is really central to what we should be doing next in the exploration of the solar system," said Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres, chairman of a special National Academy of Sciences panel advising on future missions.

The academy panel is looking at 28 possible missions - from Mars to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And NASA is focused mostly on looking for simple life like bacteria in our solar system rather than fretting about potential alien overlords coming here.

Just days ago, Hawking said on his new TV show that a visit by extraterrestrials to Earth would be like Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."

The famous British physicist speculated that while most will be similar to microbes, advanced life forms would likely be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize."

The comment reinvigorated a three-year debate roiling behind the scenes in the small community of astronomers who look for extraterrestrial life, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which looks for aliens. Should astronomers ban purposeful messages into the universe for fear of attracting dangerous aliens?

Shostak maintains it doesn't really matter, saying that approach is unnecessarily fearful.

While some people think broadcasting into the universe is "like shouting in a jungle, not necessarily a good idea," Shostak asked, "Are we to forever hide under a rock? That to me seems like no way to live."

There's a big difference of opinion in astronomy about the issue, said Mary Voytek, a senior astrobiology scientist at NASA headquarters.

"We're prepared to make discoveries of any type of life, of any form," Voytek said in a NASA teleconference. But much of the search for intelligent life is privately funded, by groups like SETI, she said.

About 20 years ago, NASA held a conference on this issue. Back then, most of the experts were worried about attracting the wrong type of aliens, said Christopher Kraft, the former NASA Johnson Space Center director who created Mission Control.

But Kraft, a NASA legend who received a lifetime achievement award Wednesday from the Smithsonian Institution, said he would welcome aliens. "I might just learn something," he said.

The Institute in Mountain View, Calif., takes a passive approach, listening for any signals from aliens.

But for more than a quarter of a century, various groups have been purposely sending out signals to other worlds. The most famous was a three-minute broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974, Shostak said.

The Canadians made a series of broadcasts using a Ukrainian antenna in the 1990s. The now-defunct Team Encounter of Houston and a prominent Russian astronomer make public and distinct "cosmic calls" out to the universe, including one just from teenagers.

NASA beamed "Across the Universe" to the star Polaris in 2008 to promote the space agency's 50th anniversary, the 45th anniversary of the Network and the 40th anniversary of the Beatles song. And the same year, as part of the publicity for the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the movie was broadcast to the stars, Shostak said.

Four NASA deep space probes - Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 - carry plaques and recordings that say hello from Earth and give directions on how to get here. Those probes launched in the 1970s are at the edges of the solar system.

And that's on top of the broadcasts Earth inadvertently sends into the cosmos as part of daily life: radio and TV signals, airport and other radar communications.

"That horse left the barn a long time ago," Squyres said, speaking from an astrobiology conference in Houston. "Whether you do it intentionally or not, the signals are out there."

MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager doesn't think much of the broadcasts to space because so far they are pointed at random, not toward potential Earth-like planets.

"We wouldn't even know where to send our message, it's so vast out there," Seager said. That will change in a few years when new telescopes will be able to find terrestrial planets that could support life.

Even then, Seager said any aliens coming to Earth likely would be so advanced they wouldn't need to hear our message to find us. It wouldn't be like Columbus stumbling upon on the New World, she said.

"If they have the capability to come here, they're probably to us as we are to ants on Manhattan," said former NASA sciences chief Alan Stern.

The closest any aliens could be is a few tens of light years away. With one light year equaling about 5.9 trillion miles, that means it would take them generations to get here traveling at the speed of light, Shostak said. And even that would be unlikely, he added.

Frank Drake, who did the first modern experiment looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, estimated there are about 10,000 intelligent civilizations in the universe, while the late Carl Sagan figured it was closer to a million, Shostak said.

Given how big the universe is, our nearest intelligent neighbor is more likely about 5,900 trillion miles away, he said.

"God has nicely buffered us," he said.

Explore further: Video: Alleged meteor caught on Russian dash cam (again)

More information: SETI: http://www.seti.org

Astrobiology 2010 Science Conference: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2010/

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antialias_physorg
4.1 / 5 (7) Apr 28, 2010
I think that civilizations that can roam around the galaxy don't have a need to squabble over inhabited planets.

All in the way of resources they need they could get from the asteroid belts or syphon off gas-giant atmospheres (in MUCH larger quantities and with a LOT less effort) without being bothered by the locals.

I find this 'interstellar locust/nomads'-scenario very unconvincing.

And quoting the Drake equation? Puhleeeze. That is guesses multiplied by guesses - it's a completely useless string of symbols.
SincerelyTwo
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2010
"OOPS TOO LATE!"

Not even close, we'll be sending absurdly intense beams of gamma rays out in all directions humanly possible out from the planet just to get in to the 0.0001% chance of hitting life that has the technology to communicate back within* the next 10 million years.
Husky
3 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2010
the aliens are probably thankful for the vastness of space, so that they don't fall prey to the colonial nature of us humans, that is, until we get that warpengine running...
TegiriNenashi
3.2 / 5 (5) Apr 28, 2010
Worrying about our communication signals escaped into outer space is akin to aboriginals concerned about their drumbeats heard overseas and causing conquistadors to come. I suggest the later had more substantial reasons to explore new territories.

Actually the analogy is severely broken. The civilization progress is exponential, so that the two cultures merely 1000 years apart would have a major difficulty understanding each other. Stanislaw Lem suggested that 1000 years more advanced civilization may operate on cosmic scale, and 1000000 years ahead one should definitely be able to master changing physics laws themselves.
mudi
2 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2010
Just think, If we found a alien civilization like monkeys, we don't want to communicate with them and don't want to disturb their life. Instead we will do experiment on them.This may be same if advanced civilization could found us.They may be don't want to communicate with us.
And because universe is so vast the probability of receiving our messages will be almost zero.
out7x
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
Our nearest star, alpha centuri, is a trinary star system, but could still support a earth-type planet. Why not look there first by sending a 1kg probe to look? Light sail to our nearest star is within our current technology.
Digi
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
I am surprised at Hawking saying it is too risky trying to talk to aliens. Any interstellar aliens will already have conquered the means to create their own resources. Unless he means risky for them ;-)
Sinister181
1.6 / 5 (5) Apr 29, 2010
How is it too "risky"? If anything, we're probably more of a risk to them than they are to us. But then again, that's just my opinion.
tkjtkj
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
in the 100 years, or so, that radio signals have radiated from earth , the maximal distance they have traveled is only 100 light-years .. hardly far enough to have any chance whatsoever of being received by any alien.

That said, Dr. Hawking might be a bit premature: we've plenty of time to prepare for a wide-range of possible consequences .. in the next 10,000 years .. assuming, of course, that we don't annihilate ourselves first .. The odds of that happening, I fear, are far higher than the chance we might contact aliens.
SmartK8
2.5 / 5 (8) Apr 29, 2010
Or maybe the aliens are advanced, but don't care about the exploration. I think once you really know what the universe is about (TOE), you don't need to bother to determine how much life there is in the galaxy. Just build the Dyson sphere or something, and enjoy the immortality if you care. There's not much to do anyway. Maybe create the alternative universes, but that's still boring after a while. My guess is that at a certain phase of civilization advancement you'll realize there's nothing else to do, and you pack it up. Why bother surviving for the solemn purpose of it. You've won anything there is - so to speak. And yes, I'm leaning towards nihilism. You can always remove your feeling of boredom of course, but that's just a trick to fool yourself, and you know it.
El_Nose
4 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
I think Hawking had a most valid point, just because there maybe advanced intellegent life, does not mean they are benevolent. And there seems to be no protection from that naivity.

The same things that are pushing us to the stars likely pushed a differnt species- knowledge, and resources.

It is incorrect to assume there is no intelligent life within 100 yrs of earth... We simply have no proof of that. However an advanced civilization might not look at the EM spectrum for communication because it would be so slow over light yrs. In fact if it is Perfectly true - that nothing built can approach c - or circumvent c , warp/wormhole technology -- then we are pretty much safe... but we are pretty much isolated as well.

Earth is a very protected planet all in all. We have solar wind to distrub radio signals... We have the Oort cloud that has billions of comets in it according to Nasa and some nice dust clouds outside of that in our local area.
El_Nose
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
@Digi

First rule -- matter cannot be created or destroyed
Creation of resources-- thats a little far fetched -- now maybe they do mine gas giants and can trun methane and nitrogen to lead -- but that must take ALOT of energy.

@ tkjtkj -- why is it there is no intelligent life in 100 lyrs??

Skeptic_Heretic
1.6 / 5 (5) Apr 29, 2010
I think it's funny that above many posters think aliens wouldn't be concerned with Earth for resources.

Earth would be the perfect place to harvest resources, especially seeing as we've brought a lot of the good and rare ones to the surface of the planet already.

Secondly, a species that is sufficiently advanced to cross interstellar space most likely consumes massive amounts of energy. All they need to is block out the sun for a few hours to begin killing all life on Earth.

And why would they harvest hydrogen from Jupiter, when the sun is primarily composed of hydrogen? Solar scoops are hypothetical, and we're fairly sure we could build one if we had access to more resources. An interstellar species could stop off for a quick recharge and grab enough solar energy to end life without any concern, which they may not even feel for us.

Advanced aliens don't necessarily need to have advanced empathy.
lengould100
2.3 / 5 (4) Apr 29, 2010
Humanity has only a very short time remaining, until the computer intelligences now being birthed develop to the point where they'll exterminate animal life as too unpredictable and sociopathetic. Google has made some progress, but the big developments await only the future development of two more indexing algorithms.
batholith
4 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
If the nearest aliens are a few tens of light years away, how would it take them generations to get here if they're travelling at the speed of light? Is the author assuming they have really short generations or does he assume they'll take a scenic route of a few hundred or thousand light years?
kshultz222_yahoo_com
4.3 / 5 (4) Apr 29, 2010
One simple question: If we were able to send an astronaut to a star 100 light years away in one year, then send a message toward her descendant, would that descendant be able to detect and translate the signal into anything meaningful? Wouldn't the signal be so degraded and weak as to render it a useless piece of garbage?

I am just asking: do these signals that we are sending out have any chance of being "read" on the other end?
El_Nose
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
@kshultz222_yahoo_com

if you send an astronaunt 100 lyrs away in 1 yr -- why not send messages by the same transpotation method.. it is already faster than light and a proven transportation technique.

Depending on the EM band used there is no reason to think a message could not make it. But our radio waves will very likely make it several hundred light years.
trekgeek1
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
We are starting to spot "earth-like" planets by their emission spectra and the wobble of their suns. We can barely get to our moon. Any species capable of traveling at faster than light speeds already knows where the planets are, much further out than our radio waves have reached. I say if they are within traveling distance of us, they already know we are here. Furthermore, while they don't need to be benevolent, I think any species that has that type of technology and hasn't destroyed themselves has learned how to use it in a responsible way.
krundoloss
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 29, 2010
I think these questions are just to keep the smart people preoccupied while the people in charge run the world. Obviously, we have been contacted by aliens in the past. Also as obvious is the fact that the people in power don't want the news getting out because of all the weak-minded crazy panicky people that will kill each other because "there is no god" or something. So should we worry about our cute little signals, of course not. And yes, why would an alien species want to attack us for "resources". If they have to resources to create an interstellar craft that can support life for long periods, they can probably teraform a planet or gather any needed resources from asteroids, dead planets, etc. Would you conquer an ant hill? So neither would aliens conquer our little Earth hill. Stop thinking we are so Significant!
krundoloss
1 / 5 (5) Apr 29, 2010
By the way, the lady on the plaque they sent out was hot. Maybe some aliens will take away our hottest lady resources!
LuckyBrandon
1 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
a visit by extraterrestrials to Earth would be like Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."


There is a significant difference...we hopefully in today's day and age would not mistake alien beings for gods or spirits as was done. If that hadn't been done, the fight for the lands of the americas would have gone siginificantly different. That appleis whether you look to north, south, or central america....

The closing quote to the article was rather stupid I thought....
winthrom
not rated yet Apr 29, 2010
The answer is 42 or maybe the "Prime Directive" or maybe ...

Dr Hawkins is urging caution. When human beings mature enough to be one civilization, composed of many origins, we may have passed the first test. When we learn to be peaceful with each other, we can try to pass this test. As I see it now, we will kill all intelligent life on earth long before we pass the first test.
droid001
1 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2010
Only fresh ideas are valuable resources. Human unpredictability is an advantage
Bookbinder
1 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2010
The resources they will come for is us. To fight their wars or to test their medicines and cosmetics for safety and efficacy. >-)
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
Light sail to our nearest star is within our current technology.

Yes, but it would take many thousands of years to get there. Light sails aren't exactly fast (and once you get outside the solar system the radiation from all directions is practically the same so then the amount of thrust you can generate quickly drops to near zero). Then of course you need to get the info back to us some way... Return trip?

in the 100 years, or so, that radio signals have radiated from earth , the maximal distance they have traveled is only 100 light-years .. hardly far enough to have any chance whatsoever of being received by any alien.

By that time the signal to noise ratio has already dropped way below the universal background radiation - not even theoretical amplifiers would be able to pick them up. (Actually this goes for distances of less than 2 light years for anything except highly directional/coherent broadcasts like lasers with the power output of the entire planet behind them)
antialias
4 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2010
would be like Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas


Hardly.

a) Earth biology is not going to be compatible with theirs (so we likely will not see diseases transmitting accross the species barriers)

b) They would need some sort of life support as it is _extremely_ unlikely that they could survive under our conditions (radiation-, pressure-, temperature-, gas mixture-ranges) unaided. So setting foot on Earth is as much trouble as setting foot on Mars for them.

c) If you want to harvest resources pluck one of those all-platinum asteroids or go to a world closer to the sun where the melting/density difference already separated them in great quantities. (Heavier metals are also much more abundant the closer the planet is to the sun). If you want the lighter elements go further out.

I hardly think they would want/need oil for anything (as our planet is only really optimally located for the abundance of carbon/oxygen/nitrogen that would be the only thing we have)
Digi
not rated yet Apr 29, 2010
@ El_Nose

You speak within the constraints of science with present day rules. If humanity is lucky enough to survive another 1000 years, the scientific breakthroughs will be incredible. Now imagine an alien civilisation 1 million years more advanced - they won't have any concerns about energy and I am sure will be more than able to bend and break our so called rules.
TegiriNenashi
1 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
The universe is uniform in a mysterious way. Consider a civilization 1 million years more advanced. It certainly should be able to operate on cosmic scale so that our astronomy should identify an area in space that is uniquely different than its surroundings. Yet there no such phenomena is known, and astronomical artifacts seems to be distributed uniformly in space. It seems that a well advanced civilization operates in scope of the whole universe (so that it is indistinguishable from nature).
antialias
not rated yet Apr 29, 2010
One might hypothesize that a truly advanced civilization would have virtually immortal individuals (if it still has individuals at all). Immortality tends to confer a certain conservatism.

I.e. what is to us an acceptable risk, like getting hit by a meteor on the head or living in an earth quake zone (or even living in a house which might collapse every few hundred years), would be totally unacceptable to a being that lives millions of years.

To them galaxies/solar-systems/planets would be unacceptably risky places.

A truly long lived species would likely move off into deep space (either using a controlled environment or by adapting to live there in the first place) where such risks are minimized.
Alizee
Apr 29, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
RobertKLR
3 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2010
"...advanced life forms would likely be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize." That's a bunch of Hollywood BS straight from the sci-fi movie Independence Day. An interstellar civilization would act like you would expect a old and wise civilization to act...respectfully. We haven't achieved that status yet. We still act like young fools. Hawking is a genius but not a genius at everything.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 30, 2010
"...advanced life forms would likely be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize." That's a bunch of Hollywood BS straight from the sci-fi movie Independence Day. An interstellar civilization would act like you would expect a old and wise civilization to act...respectfully. We haven't achieved that status yet. We still act like young fools. Hawking is a genius but not a genius at everything.

So how many forms of life on earth act in this manner?

Right, just 1, and only sometimes. Don't antropomorphosize something you probably can't even begin to understand.
lewando
1.8 / 5 (5) May 01, 2010
"We'll make great pets" --P.f.P.
kshultz222_yahoo_com
not rated yet May 01, 2010
If you think about it, life forms on other planets would likely evolve and compete, just like on earth. Competition drives innovation. Also, the "law of the jungle" would prevail. I don't imagine that most aliens would look remotely like humans, but a competitive nature would be likely.

I am sure that they could become peaceful and cooperative within their own race, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have any moral concern for other beings. However, they might have a healthy fear of the unknown, just like us.
I think it makes sense to be wary about sending out signals, until we have an idea of what is out there. It is easy to speculate, but very difficult to really know. This makes a lot more sense than scientists urging us not to "infect" other local planets with our "viral", dirty life. I am speaking of Mars here.

Terraforming = good, shouting in the jungle = bad.
lewando
1 / 5 (4) May 01, 2010
I wonder how Native Americans feel about the prospects of our planet encountering an "advanced civilization". I'm guessing they might enjoy the spectacle.
james11
not rated yet May 01, 2010
I believe it's pure chance as to whether an advanced species would have good intentions or bad. Nature is nature, hunters and hunted. So there are plenty of "ifs" here. What if we explored another planet and found life? We would most certainly study, test, and experiment with that life form including "kidknapping" that life form, probably not being worried too much whether it lives or dies. If that life form is dominant on the planet and we are interested in the resources what would we do hmm? Another life form coming here would probably do the same. Its obvious in this universe there aren't a whole lot of "nice" aspects of anything.
james11
not rated yet May 01, 2010
I see it coming down to the way humans respond to an encounter. Depends if we want to let them take what they want.
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (1) May 02, 2010
I always had the thought that just like competitors in the wild, two disparate forms of life would probably be reviled by each other at first encounter.
Au-Pu
1 / 5 (3) May 02, 2010
El Nose, Skeptic Heretic and batholith and all those of a similar ilk appear to be out of touch with reality. Perhaps they watch too many scifi TV shows or movies or else they have played Halo for too long and have forgotten that all of this is fantasy.
Skeptic Heretic, it is spelt anthropomorphise, unless you are American when you would swap the "s" for a "z".
Stephen Hawking's illness must be getting the best of him because his comments would appear to suggest that he may be starting to lose the plot. Hopefully that is not the case and this is no more than a foot-in-mouth error.
In the interest of brevity more will follow.
RobertKLR
1 / 5 (1) May 02, 2010
"...advanced life forms would likely be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize." That's a bunch of Hollywood BS straight from the sci-fi movie Independence Day. An interstellar civilization would act like you would expect a old and wise civilization to act...respectfully. We haven't achieved that status yet. We still act like young fools. Hawking is a genius but not a genius at everything.

So how many forms of life on earth act in this manner?

Right, just 1, and only sometimes. Don't antropomorphosize something you probably can't even begin to understand.


Like you got it all figured out? Then write the book.
lewando
1 / 5 (4) May 02, 2010
We should treat any advanced civilization that contacts us, initially, with respect. However, if that respect is not immediately returned, we should be prepared to annihilate these space a-holes without hesitation.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 02, 2010
El Nose, Skeptic Heretic and batholith and all those of a similar ilk appear to be out of touch with reality. Perhaps they watch too many scifi TV shows or movies or else they have played Halo for too long and have forgotten that all of this is fantasy.
And you suggest that there will be a friendly Federation of aliens? Please, the answer is I don't know, and neither do you. Err on the side of caution.
Skeptic Heretic, it is spelt anthropomorphise, unless you are American when you would swap the "s" for a "z".
German, not my first language, but thanks.
Thex1138
5 / 5 (1) May 03, 2010
A civilization that can travel between STAR SYSTEMS or GALAXIES will have no interest in our little rock when there are many other planets in our solar system with both useful minerals and energies available in other already observed systems and stars near by. Consider Arcturus...
We are now nearing the point of being able to directly observe planets in near by stars... in another 50 years we should should have the capability to directly observe them. Another civilization 50 years older than ours would easily have that capability...
We have sent satellite's to the edge and beyond the Oort cloud... it is not a problem thus far... A civilization which can navigate star systems or galaxies will not be hindered by asteroid obstacles... Oort clouds are wonderful places.
Interstellar travel could never be directly observable... stop trying.
Thex1138
5 / 5 (1) May 03, 2010
Radio waves from earth will be far to dispersed to be observable... along with interference from the sun, Jupiter and Saturn, the many pulsars, few quasars, black holes and the like emitting huge amounts of radio waves... look for the water droplet wave in the open ocean... That's the analogy.
An interstellar civilization would not see the need to send humanoids unless absolutely necessary... automated probes are for the win for a long time before any E.T civilization would even bother sending an envoy 8-)
End of Line
paulsac
not rated yet May 03, 2010
Any ET advanced enough to travel to Earth would not need to harvest it for any reason. Nuclear power is inefficient when compared to antimatter generators.

Testing on humans is ridiculous. With their computing ability, they'll be using auto-rendering computer models of whatever they need, which will probably operate as a parallel thought process.

Material harvesting is obsolete. ET will exploit its massive generator to run an atomic printer, creating atoms from scratch.

Currently, we would be an ideal ant farm. Work, create, and destroy. Simple dumbies.
paulsac
not rated yet May 03, 2010
The closest any aliens could be is a few tens of light years away. With one light year equaling about 5.9 trillion miles, that means it would take them generations to get here traveling at the speed of light, Shostak said.


This is a senior astronomer? A few tens of light years at the speed of light is a few tens of years... for us. For them, hypothetically at the speed of light as stated, they couldn't blink in that time.
LariAnn
1 / 5 (4) May 03, 2010
One assumption being made is that any nearby planets would have to have indigenous intelligent races. What if some are colonies of much more ancient civilizations that set up those colonies millenia ago? IMHO, it is more likely that an extremely advanced civilization would have already colonized many planets closer to us, even if they originated from a star system much further away. Also, it is quite arrogant to assume that we know so much that we can categorically exclude any possibility of FTL travel or use of wormholes for travel. If we can imagine it in sci-fi, they've probably had the technology for millenia already!!