How would we give aliens directions to Earth?

The universe is inconceivably large and staggeringly old. Given all that time and space, it seems likely that somewhere, at some point, another spark of intelligence would emerge. But if there are intelligent beings somewhere, how the heck could we connect with them and, assuming we would like to be friends, how would we give our planet directions?

There are several techniques that scientists could use to send addresses to distant aliens, but more importantly, researchers would have to find a way to send a readable galactic map to our guests, which is a tricky problem.

“If you’re trying to tell someone where you are, you need to have some common references, right? Ideally fixed references,” Héctor Socas-Navarro, astrophysicist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, a Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. Live Science said. “But nothing is fixed in the galaxy.” The stars and planets are constantly changing, moving around each other in a slow cosmic waltz. But even within our ever-changing galaxy, scientists have come up with a few ways to convey our location to anyone else who may be there.

Related: What messages have we sent to aliens?

“Most people would say, ‘Sends out a strong radio wave transmission,'” Martin Rees, UK Astronomer Royal, told Live Science.

Electromagnetic radiation, which includes everything from visible light to radio waves to infrared, has historically been the number one choice for transmitting information about Earth to the cosmos. By subtly modulating the frequency of an electromagnetic wave, scientists can extract complex messages into simple binary code. And because electromagnetic waves are directional, any intelligent alien that intercepts such a signal could simply track it back to Earth.

Of all the different types of electromagnetic waves, radio waves are the usual resource for such communication. That’s because the frequency of radio waves fills a convenient space on the electromagnetic spectrum, known as the “water hole,” according to NASA. At this frequency, between 1420 and 1720 megahertz, the hydrogen and hydroxyl molecules (oxygen and hydrogen bonded together), the two components of water, act as a kind of chemical “soundproofing”, absorbing lower and higher vibrations and leaving the channel relatively free of cosmic. background noise. The frequencies above and below the waterhole are comparatively “noisy” because they are full of quantum vibrations and leftover radiation from the Big Bang.

Scientists have used radio waves to attempt extraterrestrial communication in the past. In 1974, researchers transmitted a radio frequency message from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico to the star cluster M13, approximately 21,000 light-years away. The message was a simple binary pictogram containing a representation of a DNA molecule, our solar system, and a human stick figure, among other things, according to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Since then, numerous radio messages have been sent into space, including NASA’s 2008 “Across the Universe” signal, which consisted entirely of the Beatles song of the same name.

However, a potential problem with radio waves is that they diffract or widen as they travel, much like a wave that expands in water. That means they can become too diffuse to carry a discernible message when they reach a distant galaxy, according to MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. For a more direct message, said Svetlana Berdyugina, an astrophysicist at the Leibniz Institute for Solar Physics in Germany, we should transmit using visible laser light.

A directed message made of polarized laser light, or light whose vibrations occur in a single plane, has the potential to travel much further than a radio signal without degrading. However, because optical waves are a more compact signal, they are very narrow. Scientists would need to use incredible precision when sending them. In other words, we would already need to know where our aliens were before we could send them laser addresses.

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Some scientists have taken a different approach to interstellar communication, one more akin to a “message in a bottle,” Socas-Navarro said. The most famous is the gold “Pioneer plate,” which astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake placed on the Pioneer 10 probe in 1972, according to the Planetary Society. A second identical plate was fitted to Pioneer 11 the following year. These plates are inscribed with two human figures, a man and a woman, as well as a “map” that points the way to our solar system using a series of 14 strange cosmic landmarks: pulsars.

Pioneer license plate images, including pulsar map. Earth is at the center where the lines converge. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Pulsars (short for pulsating radio source) are extremely dense spinning remnants of dead neutron stars that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation from their poles. As they rotate, these rays appear to “pulse” or blink, like a beacon on a lighthouse. Because pulsars represent a rare metronome-like point in the galaxy, they are extremely useful for navigation, Berdyugina said. In fact, NASA plans to use pulsars as a kind of cosmic GPS in future manned missions to deep space, according to Nature. By measuring slight changes in the arrival of each pulse from three or more pulsars, a spacecraft can triangulate its position in the galaxy. On the Pioneer plate, each pulsar is marked with a line indicating its distance from Earth, as well as a series of raster marks to indicate how fast it spins.

However, pulsars are only directional; its flashes are not visible from all angles. So if an alien civilization were to pick up the Pioneer plaque and read it like a map, “they’d have to figure out what we see,” Berdygina told Live Science, lest a pulsar be missed entirely. When they designed the plate, Sagan and Drake were confident that any civilization advanced enough to find and capture the Pioneer probe would have a deep enough knowledge of pulsars to read.

But the Pioneer plaque is not just a message in a bottle, it is also a time capsule. The raster marks on your pulsars map indicate the rate of rotation of each pulsar from the point of view of a 1972 Earthman. But those rapidly spinning pulsars are slowing down. In several hundred million years, some of them may no longer be spinning. As Socas-Navarro pointed out, an intelligent civilization could take much longer to find the probe, much less travel to Earth.

So while there are countless ways humans could give aliens instructions on our planet, another key ingredient in the search is this: patience.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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