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NASA's Messages to the Great Unknown

Article #43 • Written by Alan Bellows

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In the thirty-three years since it was launched, NASA's Pioneer 10 space probe has traveled over thirteen billion miles, and is now hurtling through a region of asteroids and comets known as the Kuiper Belt. Its last radio contact, barely detectable given the probe's diminishing power levels, was received on January 23, 2003, about thirty-one years after it left the Earth.

During it's long journey through the universe, should any intelligent beings come across Pioneer 10 (or Pioneer 11, which carries a copy of the same plaque), they'll be greeted with a pictorial engraving from humanity in the form of a 6 by 9-inch gold anodized plaque bolted to the spacecraft's frame. The plaque design attempts to convey as much data about humans and the Earth as possible using simple line diagrams, in the hope that whatever beings may find it can learn whence and from where the probe originated.

Among other things, it depicts a naked man and woman, with the right hand of the man raised as a sign of good will. It also indicates the layout of our solar system, as well as our sun's position relative to a number of pulsars, so that our location can be triangulated from fixed points in space.

When the plaque's design was revealed to the general public, a number of people were upset about it for various reasons. Because it depicts nudity, there was a huge uproar about NASA "wasting" taxpayer money to send "obscenities" into space. Clearly, the people voicing such pseudo-moral objections were "morons." Or rather, they had the unfortunate character flaw of being unable to separate an obscene image from a benign, scientifically useful drawing.

There were also many who criticized the complexity of the message, indicating that it would not be immediately understandable to a completely alien civilization. This is certainly true, but the plaque's designers did not intend for the message to be instantly detectable, only for it to be precise and informative. If found, its discoverers can spend as much time as necessary to decode its message, even if it takes generations.

Still other critics warned that showing a map to the probe's planet of origin may invite a hostile race to find and attack the Earth. This risk does exist, but even in the extremely unlikely event that the first star a Pioneer probe encounters (two million years from now) is home to a hostile race bent on our destruction, they must first A) detect the fast-moving piece of space debris, B) capture it, C) decode the plaque's message, D) locate our planet, and E) traverse the distance. This means that at the soonest, such aggressors would be arriving in about three million years.

In point of fact, the chances of the probe ever being discovered by any civilization-- hostile or otherwise-- are virtually non-existent, even if the universe is teeming with life. Something so tiny is just lost against the enormity of space. So why even bother including message? It seems that it was motivated by pure, unadulterated optimism. On the off chance that the someone, somewhere ever stumbles across our humble probe, it can't hurt to tell them a little about ourselves.

Click for further explanation.
Click for further explanation.

NASA's next attempt at making contact with aliens arrived in 1974, when the Aricebo radio telescope was remodeled. To mark the occasion, a high-powered message was beamed towards globular star cluster M13, some 25,100 light years away. This target was selected because it contains such a large number of stars, which might increase the message's likelihood of being detected by intelligent races--were it not for the fact that M13 will no longer be there when the signal arrives. Be that as it may, the transmission will continue on its course through outer space indefinitely, one day encountering distant galaxies, so something or someone could conceivably receive it.

The graphic representation of the message (pictured) has color added to indicate the different sections. It was originally transmitted in binary, using prime digits to give clues on how to arrange the pixels.

Among other things, it attempts to depict a human, the structure of DNA, and our solar system, but clearly it can't represent any of those things very clearly in the given space. However, if the message is ever received and decoded, it will certainly be clear to the recipients that it originated from an intelligent source. If nothing else, aliens should be able to deduce the existence of the Atari 2600 game console. If they have a reply, we can expect to receive it in about 50,200 years, assuming we're still able to listen for it.

But the most ambitious information payloads that we've blasted into the cosmos are those attached to the sides of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977. Each probe has a copy of the same gold gramophone record, which is encoded with sounds and images intended to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The probes also provide a cartridge and a needle for use in reading the records' contents.

Each record's data includes images, sounds from nature, recorded greetings in 55 languages, and a selection of music from around the world. Among the encoded photographs, it was originally planned to include a picture of a nude man and a nude pregnant woman, but after the uproar over the nude engravings on the Pioneer plaques, NASA decided against it.

Pictured is the gold-plated protective cover, which is engraved with diagrams describing how to extract the data from the disk, and the same pulsar diagram from the Pioneer probes indicating the record's place of origin. NASA also had the cover electroplated with Uranium 238, so an advanced race might determine the record's age by measuring the amount of radioactive decay.

President Carter included a spoken greeting on the record, which included the following:

"We cast this message into the cosmos . . . Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some - - perhaps many - - may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

Of course it is unlikely that any intelligent race will ever stumble across one of our derelict spacecraft, and even if they do, the time scales and distances involved are staggering. Moreover, it's doubtful that a completely alien intelligence can discern the whole meaning of the diagrams for lack of a common frame of reference. But there would be little doubt that the object is the product of an intelligent race of people, which is perhaps the most important message to convey.

So it seems that the act of including these messages from humanity is really a symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with other civilizations. But long after humanity has died off, and the Earth is burned to a crisp by her dying sun, these tiny messengers will continue to tote little pieces of our history throughout the universe. And maybe after drifting for millions of years, one of our messages-in-a-bottle will be discovered, and possibly mark the most exciting event in another civilization's history.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 07 November 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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26 Comments
Schroedinger
Posted 08 November 2005 at 07:59 pm

I am quite shocked there are no entries as of yet--this has been here for hours! Regardless, I find it interesting that the writer surmises the probes were sent out of "optimism"; may I suggest a need to belong, to feel a part of a larger entity-for it is perhaps the most frightening notion of all for us humans: to exist in a void for all time-- that we attempt to alleviate by desiring to have our aloneness invalidated by being "heard" by another .


Alan Bellows
Posted 08 November 2005 at 09:18 pm

Schroedinger said: "...I find it interesting that the writer surmises the probes were sent out of “optimism”"

The "optimism" part is in reference to the plaques themselves... meaning that we don't expect them to be found, but that doesn't prevent us from hoping. Sorry if it was bit ambiguous.


thatsmyname
Posted 09 November 2005 at 07:52 pm

I certainly hope that the plaques are found by something, while at the same time I acknowledge that its highly unlikely. That said, I strongly believe that there is something out in the cosmos to find the plaques. I mean in the universe the circumstances for life as WE know it occur randomly a countless number of times. To think that their is no life other than our own is almost arrogant.

And as Schroedinger put it, "..it is perhaps the most frighteming notion of all for us humans: to exist in a void for all time.." I mean, whats the fun in that? Sometimes optimisms what it's all about.


danmassey
Posted 10 December 2005 at 07:16 pm

I hope one day one of these artifacts are found. After all, its an impossibility that there isnt other intelligent lifeforms (assuming universe in endless). Lets hope other life forms have had the same idea and we find one of their probes!


EvilFairy
Posted 08 January 2006 at 11:10 am

Lovely article! I agree with the previous comments, and I certainly hope one day someone out there will find our probes! However, being an average intelligence human... I find it hard to decipher the messages myself, especially the radio transmission. I think that another culture with totally different points of reference will find it harder than I do... But let's not be pessimistic!


mHagarty
Posted 05 February 2006 at 08:47 pm

Well, as mentioned in the article, it doesn't really matter if they decipher it. It's almost certain that they'd be able to tell it came from an intelligent species, and that's the most important thing.

It's all quite moot considering the odds of them being found, but it's a nice thought.


sleepwalker
Posted 16 April 2006 at 11:08 pm

What if it got swallowed in blackhole?


Filoviridae
Posted 22 June 2006 at 11:41 am

mHagarty said: "Well, as mentioned in the article, it doesn't really matter if they decipher it. It's almost certain that they'd be able to tell it came from an intelligent species."

What makes people think they would assume this to be from an intelligent species? Oh you mean because it's too complex to have just assembled itself...hmm I see.


Zamemee
Posted 06 September 2006 at 09:59 pm

danmassey said: " Lets hope other life forms have had the same idea and we find one of their probes!"

With our luck their "probe" will be the size of Mars and completly destroy the earth. Figures.


Biks
Posted 06 January 2007 at 06:06 pm

Nobody seems to realize this. WE will be "scooting" past Pioneer and Voyager (V'ger) at some point in the future. (hopefully) Those spacecraft will basically be the model T's of the future. (hopefully) My prediction: vandals in the year 2200 will scratch V'gers record. (hopefully not)

While I'm at it: bored kids in spacesuits, standing behind titanium ropes, will wander around the Apollo 11 site while asking their parents when they can go home.


MyStupidMouth
Posted 21 January 2007 at 03:26 pm

I love the implications int his article, they are pleasantly optimistic. And no, I'm not referring to attaching plaques to the Voyager and whatnot but that we will be assumed to be intelligent and that they think what we have provided is a) sufficient enough to prove intelligence and b) will even be decipherable whatsoever. It's great that there are greetings in 55 languages. How many people are there on earth that couldn't understand a single one? I would be surprised if it wasn't a decent number, and that's in the context of our own bubble that is the Earth, People who have relatively similar anatomical structures and functions. Now, an alien, extraterrestrial race that may (and I'll make a major, unscientific assumption: most likely will) not look anything like humans are expected to be able to identify pictures, use our own artificial number system, hear words, sounds, greetings, etc and here's the kicker: assume a rasied right hand is a symbol of good will! Separately from that, we sent out a drawing that truly does mimic an Atari system screenshot using prime numbers (again, based on our decimal system, I am guessing? that is to say, an artificial "language") and we are ADVANCED? I say this in a mildly sarcastic manner, but at the same time, it should be taken somewhat seriously. Who's to say the aliens will even "see" the way we see and "hear" the way we hear, or could even make out what it was?

To assume we are alone in the universe is ignorant. To assume we are intelligent compared to other civilzations is arrogant. Take your pick, I would prefer to be neither. Great and itneresting article, it does make you think, surely, but it just made me smile to hear (well, read) the connotation of the words that portrayed us in such a positive light. To udnerstand where some of my cynicism comes from, read (the science-fiction, I know) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Great read, really opens your eyes, I found.


Old Man
Posted 01 March 2007 at 11:08 pm

Man, the moral animal.

I bet they put Pluto on those things?


misanthrope
Posted 02 March 2007 at 05:01 am

Did you guys ever see the reply to the Aricebo message? Enjoy!

http://www.cropcircleresearch.com/articles/arecibo.html

(Yes, I'm kidding, I know crop circles are all hoaxed. Good sense of humour, though.)


skywalker
Posted 16 March 2007 at 07:06 am

Actually, we've been watching your planet for some time now. While you earth people are interesting enough, your choice in signals sent could have used some forethought - you could have waited for he first Van Halen album to be released in 1978 and have sent that! We would have appreciated all of the brown M&M's also.


My2Cents
Posted 11 October 2007 at 10:47 am

I think it was a very good idea to put a naked man and woman on the first probe. It just shows what we are along with the message that we are trying to send. Maybe seeing a picture of the creatures that sent the message will give them more clues on how to depict the message we were trying to send. It's a pity that everyone couldn't realize that and a shame that we couldn't do the same thing on the other probes that we sent. I hope people will reconsider their thoughts if and when we decide to launch another one. Who knows, maybe we'll have faster technology that ensures that the probe gets further out faster.
It may be wishfull thinking that communication would happen in my lifetime but it sure would be awesome. :)


Former-Marine
Posted 13 October 2007 at 11:40 pm

Alan, excellent article - THANKS! I would like to add that Carl Sagan (ie, "Billlliionnss and Billliionnns of stars...") sketched the engraving for Pioneer 10. Thanks again!


Alchemist
Posted 24 October 2007 at 01:05 pm

My2Cents said: "I think it was a very good idea to put a naked man and woman on the first probe. It just shows what we are along with the message that we are trying to send. "

D'oh! You're so right. The could look and see that we have 10 fingers, and try a base 10 number system for example. They could also determine which side of the figure was "up" by assuming we don't stand on our heads. That we have an internal skeleton based on the figures' scale relative to the probe.

"If nothing else, aliens should be able to deduce the existence of the Atari 2600 game console. "

heh.

Seriously, that message is a total waste of time. Granted, they are going to be pretty limited by the rotation of the planet beaming the signal in different directions, but if they sent multiplexed signal, on different wavelengths, any receiving intelligence would have a greater chance of hitting on at least one of the transmitted frequencies and knowing something is going on.


Alx_xlA
Posted 04 December 2007 at 09:19 pm

What would be ironic is if the probes crashed into the pulsars used for reference.


stinger
Posted 28 February 2008 at 02:34 pm

What ever happened to V'Ger??


superslicedog
Posted 08 April 2008 at 10:39 pm

It is not in the destination we find meaning, but in the journey.


DanThinksDances&femaleGspot
Posted 08 September 2008 at 10:30 pm

Enter your reply text here. OK

My2Cents said: "I think it was a very good idea to put a naked man and woman on the first probe. It just shows what we are along with the message that we are trying to send. Maybe seeing a picture of the creatures that sent the message will give them more clues on how to depict the message we were trying to send. It's a pity that everyone couldn't realize that and a shame that we couldn't do the same thing on the other probes that we sent. I hope people will reconsider their thoughts if and when we decide to launch another one. Who knows, maybe we'll have faster technology that ensures that the probe gets further out faster.
It may be wishfull thinking that communication would happen in my lifetime but it sure would be awesome. :)"

That part from wiki & problobly untrue.

superslicedog said: "It is not in the destination we find meaning, but in the journey."

Bullshit, I like results. A mountain hike is a nice journey.


wayno@oz
Posted 05 March 2009 at 09:59 pm

Cant wait for the day we pull up beside the probes and catch them. Because if we are not expecting to be able to do that in the near future there is no hope for humanity!


homerer
Posted 29 July 2009 at 01:28 pm

Given the small probability that some "intelligent life" will find any of these messages, combined with the higher probability that this "intelligent life" does exist, does it not make sense that this approach has already been tried? In addition, would it not make more sense to place this message in a place it is likely to be discovered? I propose, with absolutely nothing to back it up, that the existence of the information on top of the Nazca Plateau could very well be a similar attempt to reach intelligent life. The lines on the plateau have been there longer than we have been able to see what they are (google them if you don't know what I am talking about). The images could be another species attempt to say this is what I see on your planet (spider, monkey) and when you have reached the level of intelligence required this is where we are and what we look like (lines as a map, and figure of a humanoid). I realize that I have nothing to back this theory up, I am just presenting the idea.


RoflBeard
Posted 15 January 2010 at 06:18 am

"And maybe after drifting for millions of years, one of our messages-in-a-bottle will be discovered, and possibly mark the most exciting event in another civilization’s history."

Brilliant line!
Couldn't agree more.....how facinating would it be to find a plaugue or something similar speeding past our planet, intercept it and....even if unable to understand it still feel warm with the knowledge that we arent alone in this giant void of space.


Frank G
Posted 02 February 2010 at 03:02 pm

Wow another great article here, that is a little outdated now of course.
To update it I could mention here that the KEO satellite hopefully will be launched in 2010.

If anyone is interested you can put a message on the Keo , check it out here

http://www.keo.org/

Frank G


ColCrabs
Posted 25 May 2013 at 08:16 am

Great article as usual! I love Damn Interesting!

On a side note I really love the addition of the 'Read, Get Ebook and Comment' bar, it's really handy to know if I have enough time to read through the article. It's the little things sometimes.


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