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Calling the Neighbors

November 10, 2016

15 years ago, an astronomer used a radio telescope in Ukraine to beam a concert to a star near the Big Dipper. The music included works by Vivaldi and Gershwin, as well as the Russian folk song Kalinka-Malinka — all played on the Theremin, an instrument best known for its role in spooky movies. It’ll take another 30 years for the concert to reach its target.

The message is one of several beamed to other star systems over the past four decades. The first was aimed at M13, a star cluster about 25,000 light-years away. And one of the most recent included hundreds of text messages from people across the planet.

The messages are part of a field known as METI — messaging extraterrestrial intelligence. Most efforts to make contact have been small and quick, and they have little chance of actually being picked up by other civilizations.

Scientists and others are debating the wisdom of announcing our presence to the universe at all. Some, including Stephen Hawking, warn that drawing attention to ourselves could lead to an alien invasion. Others argue that we already send out so many powerful radio signals that we can’t hide our presence, so we might as well try to talk to anyone who’s out there.

The debate also touches on questions of who should do the talking, and what any messages should say. For now, though, it’s mostly academic — there are no big plans to speak to the rest of the galaxy.

We’ll talk about plans to visit the galaxy tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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