Beatle Greetings

By now I'm sure everyone is aware of the NASA publicity stunt to transmit The Beatles' "Across The Universe" towards the 48th brightest star in the sky (Polaris). This raises a few obvious questions. Firstly, why are they sending a Beatles song to a star? Given the way the stunt is being framed in the media, it does give the impression of trying to communicate with alien life but as Phil points out, Polaris is a pretty unlikely place for life as we know it. The real reasons are to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the song, the 50thanniversary of NASA, 45 years of the Deep Space Network and 50 yearssince the launch of Explorer 1.

In terms of communication with ET, there are existing protocols - set up by the SETI Permanent Study Group - that discourage deliberate attempts to broadcast our existence such as the one happening tonight. Sending messages in this way is named active-SETI or METI - Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence - and back in 2005 the Study Group proposed a scale - the San Marino Scale - to quantify the impact of such transmissions on the occupants of the Earth. The scale ranges from "Insignificant" to "Extraordinary" and gives some idea of the potential hazard that comes from shouting in the jungle. In this NASA-Beatles stunt, the transmitted power levels are likely to be quite low compared to the output of our Sun so I don't think the level of concern would get above "Minor" at most. Of course various people in the past have read poetry to the Moon (MP3, 1.9 MB), beamed 2 million Craigslist ads into space, and sent pixellated graphics to globular cluster M13. This isn't hugely different.

On an aside, I note that the music of The Beatles is still within copyright and NASA are transmitting it in MP3 format. NASA do have clearance to transmit it but ET don't have clearance to receive it (they will also need an MP3 decoder). I hate to think that a first contact might be followed by RIAA lawyers slapping law-suits on the unfortunate interstellar 'downloaders'.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 04th Feb 2008 (19:09 GMT) | Permalink
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