Sending a Message in a Bottle to Possible Extraterrestrial Life on a Nearby Planet

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-03 17:13

Hypothetical intelligent residents of the planet GJ 273b, which may be capable of supporting life, will hear from us in about 12 years or so--if they exist, of course.

Luyten's Star [Image by Bellatrix Orionis/Flickr]



The star GJ 273, also known as Luyten’s Star, is a red dwarf located 12.36 light years away from Earth. It has about a quarter of the Sun’s mass, and a little over a third of the Sun’s radius. Earlier this year, astronomers discovered that the star hosts two planets: GJ 273c and GJ 273b. GJ 273b, the outer planet, orbits in the habitable zone of the star. Thus, GJ 273b may be capable of supporting life.


This attempt at contact with possible intelligent life lurking in nearby planets was facilitated by the nonprofit Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International. It would likely take 12 or so years for the message to get to GJ 273b, and another 12 or so years for us to get one back.

Sónar Calling GJ 273b

An illustration of a red dwarf planetary system [Image by D. Aguilar Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]



That is, of course, if there are intelligent aliens on that planet, and also if they were inclined to answer. If they do get this proverbial message in a bottle, however, they won’t be receiving just any old missive from Earth. This project, called "Sónar Calling GJ 273b", is a collaboration between METI International, Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, and Sónar, a music and arts festival in Barcelona.


The team composed a message that included 33 musical compositions by Sónar’s musicians, as well as a sort of tutorial on math and science. The message was then converted to binary code before it was beamed out to GJ 273b on October 16, 17, and 18.


Of all possibly habitable planets out there beyond the limits of our solar system, however, why GJ 273b? For one thing, GJ 273b is relatively close. Other possibly inhabited exoplanets are hundreds of lightyears away, and we would thus wait hundreds to a thousand years before we receive a response from any possible alien civilization.


Thus, if intelligent aliens do receive the message sent to GJ 273b, there’s at least a good possibility that we’d receive a reply within our lifetimes. The same people who sent the message have a good chance of still being around if there is a reply.

Making Contact

A radio antenna at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association, where the message GJ 273b was sent. [Photo by Antti Leppänen]



While the message to GJ 273b was meant to elicit a response, Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, says that the main goal of the project is actually to lay a foundation for the future. However, the project is not without its critics. SETI, for example, has regarded METI with some degree of skepticism. SETI is concerned with listening and looking for possible communication attempts from aliens, while METI International wants to be the one to start the conversation. Vakoch says that if the GJ 273b project meets its goals, “that would be a radical shift of perspective.”


However, Stephen Hawking as well as other experts haven’t been sold on the idea of initiating contact with extraterrestrial life. This is because a hostile or resource-grabbing alien civilization that’s far more advanced than we can imagine may be able to sniff us out. If this happens, the consequences for humanity and Earth may be dire.


Vakoch, however, argues that if there are advanced hostile alien civilizations out there, they should have found us by now. After all, our TV and radio signals have been leaking out to space for decades. Thus, attempting to contact intelligent alien life may have more benefits than risks.

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