By now you’ve probably heard of SETI, or the ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’, which is a research organization that tunes and monitors receivers to look for any alien radio signals or transmissions. Instead of waiting for ET to contact Earth, however, a group known as METI, or Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence, intends to take a more prominent and proactive role in the search for alien life by being the ones to actually transmit contact messages into space.
Former director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, Douglas Vakoch, is propelling the METI Initiative forward with a single planet in mind: a recently discovered one that at 4.2 light-years distant is the closest exoplanet to the Earth. It orbits around Proxima Centauri, the closest star apart from the Sun, and while Vakoch notes that METI has a few other planets in mind, he also point out a number of advantages to specifically exploring Proxima Centauri b. Chief amongst those is the need to keep the signal’s travel time as short as possible, as well as the fact it’s been suggested that this exoplanet could potentially host life.
Programs similar to METI have been attempted in the past, most notably including the Arecibo radio message that was sent in 1974 to the Hercules Globular Cluster (M13), which is located 21,000 light-years distant and contains more than 300,000 individual stars. Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and company beamed the powerful uncoded message in an easily understood format consisting of simple graphics and scientific facts in the hopes of exposing our existence to extraterrestrial neighbors. For such a message to be understood, it was composed in a universal language, or more specifically the language of mathematics, because if otherworldly civilizations exist and are sending or looking for signals, they must at least know the basics of mathematics.
While some believe that its humanity’s ultimate destiny to join the galactic club, others, including Stephen Hawking, are more wary of the subject and fear it could spark an alien invasion should we make contact. While some members of the SETI community have expressed their beliefs that any attempted contact should be approached with caution, Andrew Fraknoi, astronomy professor at Foothill College, has stated that going out on a limb to make contact makes sense, noting that “if everyone decides only to receive messages, it will be a very quiet galaxy.”
In the meantime, Vokoch thinks that our presence is already likely known to alien life, and that any intelligent civilization that has the ability to travel in space will already know of our existence due to the space noise created by our accidental radio and TV signals.
This year, METI intends to use a facility located in Boquete, Panama, to search for signals coming from Proxima b, with the organization’s goal being to show other intelligent civilizations in the universe that we are actively and purposefully trying to establish contact.