If earthlings want to reach out and touch someone, we might have to change channels to connect with an intelligence that actually knows what we're saying -- and vice versa.
A team of scientists is developing a new series of protocols to more finely tune our efforts to talk to another civilization in the nearby galactic neighborhood. And they're hoping to enlist the public's help.
"Finding intelligent life is very improbable. There could be life such as human beings 100 years ago, when we didn't have the capability of building radio telescopes. So, suppose there is life on another planet of such technical advancement, then they won't be able to see the signal," said Dimitra Atri of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas.
Atri and his colleagues Jacob Haqq-Misra of Pennsylvania State University and Julia DeMarines from the International Space University in France, urge new protocols for future attempts to contact extraterrestrial intelligence.
"When you send radio signals, you send them at a specific frequency, and if the detector at that end is not tuned to that frequency, they will not be able to detect it," Atri told AOL News.
He believes that's been one of the problems facing scientists who conduct the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute in California.
"Up to a few years ago, before they had the Allen Telescope Array, their frequency bandwidth was limited," Atri explained. "So they could not detect any signals out of that bandwidth. Even if someone were trying to contact us, we don't know.
"Our galaxy is filled with hydrogen, which emits at a wavelength of 21 centimeters, and if there's an intelligent civilization anywhere, they would be studying the galaxy, so if you try to send a signal close to that frequency, their detectors might detect it."
"There's one major problem: how you encode the signal. We have been encoding the signals the way we can understand or the way our computers can understand," said Atri.
"If, for example, you make a keynote presentation on a Mac, there's no way you can open it on a Windows machine because you have to have software at the other end that can understand the file format. So if you want to send a music or a video file or a picture into space at a certain frequency, how would a person at the other end know how to encode this into a voice or video signal? That's the main problem."
Atri explains that in addition to developing the proper encoding system for a signal to be sent to space, there's also the question of whether it should be delivered as a radio wave or as part of a laser beam aimed at the cosmos.
Within a few months, Atri and his colleagues will launch an interactive website so that anyone -- scientists and the general public -- with Internet access can go online and suggest the kind of message or encoding or transmission medium that should be used to send signals into space.
But what about the argument from scientists such as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking who actually believe it would be dangerous for earthlings to announce their presence in the galaxy?
"If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans," Hawking declared last year in his Discovery Channel series "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking."
"Well, the thing is, Stephen Hawking is not an expert in interplanetary sociology. In fact, there is NO expert of interplanetary sociology on Earth. So we don't know what the other civilization would be thinking," Atri said.
He also suggests that the radio and television signals that have left Earth over the past 100 years may not have traveled so far as to announce our presence to another world.
"It's like using a wireless Internet at home. You have a router that lets you use it in any room you want or maybe in your neighborhood you can access it. But if you go to a different city, there's no way you can access that Internet, because the signal dies out very quickly."
Atri's team's research will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Space Policy. And we'll let you know when you can participate in their new signals-to-space protocols program.
But there's still a little bit of frustration in sending a signal to another civilization and having to wait decades or hundreds of years for some kind of intelligent response. While realistically, we may all be dead by the time that happens, Atri is more optimistic.
"Well, our great-grandkids would be thankful that we sent the signals."
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