Active SETI

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A representation of the 1679-bit Arecibo message.

Active SETI (Active Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is the attempt to send messages to intelligent extraterrestrial life. Active SETI messages are usually sent in the form of radio signals. Physical messages like that of the Pioneer plaque may also be considered an active SETI message. Active SETI is also known as METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), or positive SETI.

The term METI was coined by Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev, who denoted the clear-cut distinction between Active SETI and METI:[1]

The science known as SETI deals with searching for messages from aliens. METI science deals with the creation of messages to aliens. Thus, SETI and METI proponents have quite different perspectives. SETI scientists are in a position to address only the local question “does Active SETI make sense?” In other words, would it be reasonable, for SETI success, to transmit with the object of attracting ETI’s attention? In contrast to Active SETI, METI pursues not a local and lucrative impulse, but a more global and unselfish one – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation “You are not alone!”

In 2010, D. A. Vakoch of the SETI Institute addressed concerns about the validity of Active SETI alone as an experimental science by proposing the integration of Active SETI and Passive SETI programs to engage in a clearly articulated, ongoing, and evolving set of experiments to test various versions of the Zoo Hypothesis, including specific dates at which a first response to messages sent to particular stars could be expected.[2]

On 13 February 2015, scientists (including David Grinspoon, Seth Shostak, and David Brin) at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, discussed Active SETI and whether transmitting a message to possible intelligent extraterrestrials in the Cosmos was a good idea;[3][4] That same week, a statement was released, signed by many in the SETI community, that a "worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent".[5] On 28 March 2015, a related essay was written by Seth Shostak and published in the New York Times.[6]

Rationale for METI[edit]

In the paper Rationale for METI, transmission of the information into the Cosmos is treated as one of the pressing needs of an advanced civilization. This view is not universally accepted, and it does not agree to those who are against the transmission of interstellar radio messages.

Radio message construction[edit]

The lack of an established communications protocol is a challenge for METI.

First of all, while trying to synthesize an Interstellar Radio Message (IRM), we should bear in mind that Extraterrestrials will first deal with a physical phenomenon and, only after that, perceive the information. At first, ET's receiving system will detect the radio signal; then, the issue of extraction of the received information and comprehension of the obtained message will arise. Therefore, above all, the Constructor of an IRM should be concerned about the ease of signal determination. In other words, the signal should have maximum openness, which is understood here as an antonym of the term security. This branch of signal synthesis can be named anticryptography.

To this end, in 2010, Michael W. Busch created a general-purpose binary language,[7] later used in the Lone Signal project[8] to transmit crowdsourced messages to extraterrestrial intelligence.[9] Busch developed the coding scheme and provided Rachel M. Reddick with a test message, in a blind test of decryption.[7] Reddick decoded the entire message after approximately twelve hours of work.[7] This was followed by an attempt to extend the syntax used in the Lone Signal hailing message to communicate in a way that, while neither mathematical nor strictly logical, was nonetheless understandable given the prior definition of terms and concepts in the hailing message.[10]

Also characteristics of the radio signal such as wavelength, type of polarization, and modulation have to be considered.

Over galactic distances, the interstellar medium induces some scintillation effects and artificial modulation of electromagnetic signals. This modulation is higher at lower frequencies and is a function of the sky direction. Over large distances, the depth of the modulation can exceed 100%, making any METI signal very difficult to decode.

Error correction[edit]

In METI research, it is implied that any message must have some redundancy, although the exact amount of redundancy and message formats are still in great dispute.

Using ideograms, instead of binary sequence, already offers some improvement against noise resistance. In faxlike transmissions, ideograms will be spread on many lines. This increases its resistance against short bursts of noise like radio frequency interference or interstellar scintillation.

One format approach proposed for interstellar messages was to use the product of two prime numbers to construct an image. Unfortunately, this method works only if all the bits are present. As an example, the message sent by Frank Drake from the Arecibo Observatory in 1974 did not have any feature to support mechanisms to cope with the inevitable noise degradation of the interstellar medium.

Error correction tolerance rates for previous METI messages

  • Arecibo Message (1974) : 8.9% (one page)
  • Yevpatoria message (1999) : 44% (23 separate pages)
  • Yevpatoria message (2003) : 46% (one page, estimated)


The 1999 Cosmic Call transmission was far from being optimal (from our terrestrial point of view) as it was essentially a monochromatic signal spiced with a supplementary information. Additionally, the message had a very small modulation index overall, a condition not viewed as being optimal for interstellar communication.

  • Over the 370,967 bits (46,371 bytes) sent, some 314,239 were “1” and 56,768 were “0”, creating a ratio of 5.54 times more “1” than “0”.
  • Since frequency shift keying modulation scheme was used, most of the time the signal was on the “0” frequency.
  • In addition, “0” tended to be sent in long stretches (white lines in the message).

Realized projects[edit]

These projects have targeted stars between 17 and 69 light-years from the Earth. The exception is the Arecibo message, which targeted globular cluster M13, approximately 24,000 light-years away.

The first message to reach its destination will be RuBisCo Stars, which should reach Teegarden's star, a brown dwarf in 2021.


Stars to which messages were sent, are the following:[15][16][17][18][19]

Name Designation Constellation Date sent Arrival date Message
Messier 13 NGC 6205 Hercules 16 November 197416 November 1974 approx. 27000 Arecibo Message
Altair Alpha Aql Aquila 15 August 198315 August 1983 1999 Altair (Morimoto - Hirabayashi) Message [20]
Spica Alpha Vir Virgo August 1997 August 1997 2247 NASDA Cosmic-College
16 Cyg A HD 186408 Cygnus 24 May 199924 May 1999 November 2069November 2069 Cosmic Call 1
15 Sge HD 190406 Sagitta 30 June 199930 June 1999 February 2057February 2057 Cosmic Call 1
HD 178428 Sagitta 30 June 199930 June 1999 October 2067October 2067 Cosmic Call 1
Gl 777 HD 190360 Cygnus 1 July 19991 July 1999 April 2051April 2051 Cosmic Call 1
HD 197076 Delphinus 29 August 200029 August 2001 February 2070February 2070 Teen Age Message
47 UMa HD 95128 Ursa Major 3 September 20013 September 2001 July 2047July 2047 Teen Age Message
37 Gem HD 50692 Gemini 3 September 20013 September 2001 December 2057December 2057 Teen Age Message
HD 126053 Virgo 3 September 2001September 2001 December 2059January 2059 Teen Age Message
HD 76151 Hydra 4 September 20014 September 2001 May 2057May 2057 Teen Age Message
HD 193664 Draco 4 September 20014 September 2001 January 2059January 2059 Teen Age Message
HIP 4872 Cassiopeia 2003-07-066 July 2003 April 2036April 2036 Cosmic Call 2
HD 245409 Orion 7 July 20036 July 2003 August 2040August 2040 Cosmic Call 2
55 Cnc HD 75732 Cancer 6 July 20036 July 2003 May 2044May 2044 Cosmic Call 2
HD 10307 Andromeda 6 July 20036 July 2003 September 2044September 2044 Cosmic Call 2
47 UMa HD 95128 Ursa Major 6 July 20036 July 2003 May 2049May 2049 Cosmic Call 2
Polaris HIP 11767 Ursa Minor 9 October 20084 February 2008 20292439 Across the Universe
Gliese 581 HIP 74995 Libra 9 October 20089 October 2008 20292029 A Message From Earth
Gliese 581 HIP 74995 Libra 9 October 200828 August 2009 20302030 Hello From Earth
GJ 83.1 GJ 83.1 Aries 7 November 20097 November 2009 2024 RuBisCo Stars
Teegarden's Star SO J025300.5+165258 Aries 7 November 20097 November 2009 2022 RuBisCo Stars
Kappa1 Ceti GJ 137 Cetus 7 November 20097 November 2009 2039 RuBisCo Stars
HIP 34511 Gemini 15 August 201215 August 2012 2163 Wow! Reply
37 Gem HD 50692 Gemini 15 August 201215 August 2012 2069 Wow! Reply
55 Cnc HD 75732 Cancer 15 August 201215 August 2012 2053 Wow! Reply
GJ 526 HD 119850 Boötes 10 July 201310 July 2013 2031 Lone Signal

Potential risk[edit]

Active SETI has been heavily criticized due to the perceived risk of revealing the location of the Earth to alien civilizations, without some process of prior international consultation. Notable among its critics is scientist and science fiction author David Brin, particularly in his article "expose."[21]

However, Russian and Soviet radio engineer and astronomer Alexander L. Zaitsev has argued against these fears.[22][23] Indeed, Zaitsev argues that we should consider the risks of not reaching out to extraterrestrial civilizations.[24]

To lend a quantitative basis to discussions of the risks of transmitting deliberate messages from Earth, the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics[25] adopted in 2007 a new analytical tool, the San Marino Scale.[26] Developed by Prof. Ivan Almar and Prof. H. Paul Shuch, the San Marino Scale evaluates the significance of transmissions from Earth as a function of signal intensity and information content. Its adoption suggests that not all such transmissions are created equal, thus each must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis before establishing blanket international policy regarding Active SETI.

In 2012, Jacob Haqq-Misra, Michael Busch, Sanjoy Som, and Seth Baum argued that while the benefits of radio communication on Earth likely outweigh the potential harms of detection by extraterrestrial watchers, the uncertainty regarding the outcome of contact with extraterrestrial beings creates difficulty in assessing whether or not to engage in long-term and large-scale METI.[27]

In 2015, João Pedro de Magalhães proposed transmitting an invitation message to any extraterrestrial intelligences watching us already in the context of the Zoo Hypothesis and inviting them to respond. By using existing television and radio channels, João Pedro de Magalhães argued this would not put us in any danger, "at least not in any more danger than we are already if much more advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are aware of us and can reach the solar system." [28]

Beacon proposal[edit]

One proposal for a 10 billion watt interstellar SETI beacon was dismissed by Robert A. Freitas Jr. to be infeasible for a pre-Type I civilization on the Kardashev scale.[29] As a result it has been suggested that civilizations must advance into Type I before mustering the energy required for reliable contact with other civilizations.[citation needed]

However, this 1980s technical argument assumes omni-directional beacons which may not be the best way to proceed on many technical grounds. Advances in consumer electronics have made possible transmitters that simultaneously transmit many narrow beams, covering the million or so nearest stars but not the spaces between.[30] This multibeam approach can reduce the power and cost to levels that are reasonable with current mid-2000s Earth technology.

Once civilizations have discovered each other's locations, the energy requirements for maintaining contact and exchanging information can be significantly reduced through the use of highly directional transmission technologies.

In 1974, the Arecibo Observatory transmitted a message toward the then-apparent position of the M13 globular cluster about 25,000 light-years away, for example, and the use of larger antennas or shorter wavelengths would allow transmissions of the same energy to be focused on even more remote targets, such as those attempted by Active SETI.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zaitsev, A. (2006). "Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence". arXiv:physics/0610031 [physics.pop-ph]. 
  2. ^ Vakoch, D. A. (2010). Integrating Active and Passive SETI Programs: Prerequisites for Multigenerational Research - Proceedings of the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010 (PDF). p. 5213. Bibcode:2010LPICo1538.5213V. 
  3. ^ Borenstein, Seth (of AP News) (13 February 2015). "Should We Call the Cosmos Seeking ET? Or Is That Risky?". New York Times. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  4. ^ Ghosh, Pallab (12 February 2015). "Scientist: 'Try to contact aliens'". BBC News. Retrieved 12 February 2015. 
  5. ^ Various (13 February 2015). "Statement - Regarding Messaging To Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) / Active Searches For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Active SETI)". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  6. ^ Shostak, Seth (28 March 2015). "Should We Keep a Low Profile in Space?". New York Times. Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c Busch, M. W.; Reddick, R. M. (2010). Testing SETI Messages Design - Proceedings of the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010 (PDF). arXiv:0911.3976. Bibcode:2010LPICo1538.5070B. 
  8. ^ "Lone Signal - Encoding". Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  9. ^ "Lone Signal". Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  10. ^ Chapman, C. R. "Extending the syntax used by the Lone Signal Active SETI project". Archived from the original on 13 August 2013. 
  11. ^ An Awkward History of Our Space Transmissions
  12. ^ "RuBisCo Stars" and the Riddle of Life
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ (Russian) Transmission and retrieval of intelligent signals in the universe, А. Л. Зайцев AL Zaitsev, РАН Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, (Keynote Address at the National Astronomical Conference VAK-2004 "Horizons of Universe", Moscow, MSU, 7 June 2004)
  16. ^ (English) interstellar radio message (IRM), Encyclopedia of Science
  17. ^ Is anybody listening out there?, BBC News, 9 October 2008; accessed on line 11 November 2008.
  18. ^ Word MIR (it signifies both "peace" and "world" in Russian) was transmitted from the EPR on 19 November 1962, and words LENIN and SSSR (the Russian acronym for the Soviet Union) – on 24 November 1962, respectively were sent to the direction near the star HD131336 in the Libra constellation.
  19. ^ "Lone Signal - Gliese 526". Retrieved 15 July 2013. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ Shouting at the Cosmos
  22. ^ Sending and Searching for Interstellar Messages
  23. ^ Detection Probability of Terrestrial Radio Signals by a Hostile Super-civilization
  24. ^ Making a Case for METI
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Haqq-Misra, J.; Busch, M. W.; Som, S. M.; Baum, S. D. (2013). "The benefits and harm of transmitting into space". Space Policy 29: 40. doi:10.1016/j.spacepol.2012.11.006. 
  28. ^ de Magalhaes, J. P. (2015). "A direct communication proposal to test the Zoo Hypothesis". arXiv:1509.03652. 
  29. ^ Freitas, R. A. (1980). "Interstellar Probes: A new approach to SETI". Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 33: 95–100. Bibcode:1980JBIS...33...95F. 
  30. ^ Scheffer, L. K. (2005). "A scheme for a high-power, low-cost transmitter for deep space applications". Radio Science 40 (5): RS5012. Bibcode:2005RaSc...40.5012S. doi:10.1029/2005RS003243. 

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