Astronomy‘s John Wenz reports on a proposal to try to initiate contact with a hypothetical civilization on Proxima Centauri b that does not necessarily leave me cold, or worried. A hypothetical Proximan civilization only a decade more advanced in observational astronomy that us might well be aware of the existence of Earth, could conceivably even be aware of our technological civilization’s existence. A Proximan civilization capable of travelling to us would certainly know this. That said, the critics’ argument that this is the sort of thing that really should be handled by a broad-based coalition also makes sense. If we are going to send out messages, let’s try to come up with some standards, at least.
Douglas Vakoch, the former Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, is launching the METI Initiative with one planet in mind: the recently discovered planet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth (and thus the closest exoplanet.)
Vakoch says that METI has more than a few targets in mind, there are a few advantages to Proxima Centauri b.
“First, it’s close to our solar system, keeping the time for a roundtrip exchange as short as possible,” Vakoch says. “Second, some have suggested that this exoplanet is potentially habitable.”
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“To be intelligible, any message to extraterrestrials needs to be written in a universal language, and that won’t be English or Swahili,” Vakoch says. “We begin with mathematics, because it seems likely that scientists on any world will need to know at least the essentials of math.”
Then there’s the question of why, which Vakoch paraphrases SETI research Ronald Bracewell in saying that humanity should “join the Galactic Club.” Even bigger, though, is the question of “why should we broadcast that we’re here in case we, you know, get invaded.” Of the many, many things that Stephen Hawking has said publicly in recent years, the dangers of alien contact has come up again and again. Some in the SETI community say a cautious approach should be taken, with a consortium saying, “We know nothing of ETI’s intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”