Half a century ago, NASA scientists released a map into space containing the Earth’s position for aliens to find, but it won’t always be accurate.
However, the daughter of the man who made that map makes sure that the next one remains accurate for not just a few million years, but for a billion years.
How it began
In December 1971, NASA was enthusiastically preparing to launch the Pioneer 10 capsule Not only would that study Jupiter for the first time, but it would establish a path out of our solar system.
As Pioneer 10 would likely be the first object made on earth discovered by aliens, American astrophysicist Carl Sagan thought we should leave a message on board. His colleague Frank Drake thought that we should also send a map on board.
So Sagan and Drake came up with a famous image: a line drawing etched into a gold anodized aluminum plate depicting the male and female body, with the man waving in what would hopefully be interpreted as a gesture of goodwill. . It also represented a simple diagram of our solar system and galactic coordinates for Earth.
A special moment
The launch was one of those moments in history that for many turned the volume down on everyday things like the stock market, election season, the school year, or trouble at work – the kind of moment that made people of all Realms of life would gather around and say “wow, that was special”.
However, the galactic coordinate method, while brilliant at the time, that Drake used to formulate Earth’s position, has a limited number of years to work. The method uses pulsars – the body left over from a supernova explosion. Pulsars are very bright and spin at incredibly fast speeds. It has also been theorized that the most effective points to navigate through space, since the time of their rotations and the radio frequency that their spin creates are constant and reliable over periods of millions of years.
Only a handful of these pulsars were known in Drake and Sagan’s time, so their options were limited. But as Nadia Drake, Frank’s daughter, explains in her story to National Geographic, pulsars slow down over time, eliminating their eventual usefulness as landmarks.
Each line etched into the gold and aluminum plate detailed the location of the pulsars relative to Earth, while the lines themselves were drawn in a binary code that would allow any space-faired smart race to calculate the rotational speed of each. .
This would also allow the aliens to find out how long ago the message was sent, because they could measure the rotational decay of the pulsar in years based on the velocity during 1971 and at the time the message was found.
However, this was also the undoing of the map, because the slowdown would effectively inhibit the aliens from figuring out which pulsars Drake and Sagan were using.
A family business
One of the “most prolific pulsars astronomers” in the world is also the husband of Nadia Drake, and he was able to use the same method, but with more consistent “binary pulsars”, to draw a new map that could be reliably decoded for billions of years.
Tonight we gave a talk @astronomyontap, about the pulsar map on Scott’s shirt, and the bartender @KardinalHallVA made us special cocktails with Ransom gin 😍 They are called Ransom’s Ransom and they are yummmm. Thanks AoT for a stellar evening! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/ZyoIpLBN0o— Dr. Nadia Drake, PhD (@nadiamdrake) February 6, 2019
Binary pulsars, also known as millisecond pulsars, sit in dead orbits that won’t change even after billions of years. They spin much faster and last much longer. Scott Ransom, Nadia’s husband, also used pulsars that orbit the Milky Way in what are called globular clusters.
Orbiting beyond the confines of our galaxy, globular clusters are like millisecond pulsars factories and shine beautifully through space telescopes. They are fascinating places and act as much better signals for would-be aliens searching for our planet, even as the positions of the stars within the Milky Way alter and change.
Ultimately, our concept of time and distance would be alien to any alien, so like Frank Drake, Ransom included the detailed chemical structure of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe.
When hydrogen electrons change the direction of their spin, they release a radio wave. By comparing the speed of the radio wave to the speed of light, the map offers a new way of calculating both time and space that any race smart enough to choose a silent spacecraft like Pioneer 10 would be able to decode. .
The result is a map that any space fairing race can read.
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