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Cebreros antenna
The European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain was due to transmit an 866-second encoded radio message in the direction of Polaris, 434 light-years away. (Credit: ESA)

More than 3,000 messages were beamed toward the North Star today by a powerful radio telescope – and although the exercise was largely symbolic, it serves to revive a debate over whether we should be trying to contact aliens.

Today’s transmission by the European Space Agency’s Cebreros deep-space tracking station in Spain was the culmination of a yearlong effort known as “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message,” spearheaded by Irish-born artist Paul Quast.

With support from ESA and other organizations, Quast and his collaborators solicited 3,775 text-only messages from around the world in response to this question: How will our present environmental interactions shape the future? The 14-minute digital transmission with all those answers was beamed toward Polaris, the North Star, at 8 p.m. GMT (1 p.m. PT).

There’s no evidence that Polaris harbors a habitable planet. Even if the Polarians exist, they won’t get the message until around the year 2450. But if they’re able to pick up today’s message, they’ll already have known about us from a Beatles song that NASA had transmitted toward Polaris in 2008.

Some scientists worry that such attempts to contact E.T. could just get us in trouble, a la “Independence Day.” British physicist Stephen Hawking has been among those warning that it might be “too risky” to alert the rest of the galaxy to our existence.

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he said back in 2010.

That view resurfaced this August, in a column published by Nature Physics. Physicist Mark Buchanan argued that earthlings should resist the temptation to broadcast powerful signals to the stars. “At worst the consequences could be catastrophic. … At the very least, the idea seems morally questionable,” he wrote.

This month, METI International’s Doug Vakoch provided a not-so-simple response in Nature Physics.

On one hand, he noted that we’ve already been broadcasting our existence for decades. “If we are in danger of an alien invasion, it’s too late,” he wrote.

On the other hand, Vakoch argued that there’s a potential cost to staying silent – “for example, missing guidance that could enhance our own civilization’s sustainability, or averting attacks from aliens who would otherwise annihilate us for not reaching out.”

The arguments stray into the kind of science-fiction territory covered by Hollywood movies like the soon-to-be-released “Arrival.” But Vakoch had a down-to-earth suggestion for future messages to extraterrestrial intelligence, a.k.a. METI.

“Scientists already have a process for judging the merit of METI projects: peer review,” Vakoch said. “Decisions about allocating time for METI at publicly funded observatories should rely on the same procedure used for competing experiments.”

Washington State University astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch took a slightly different perspective in an essay written for Smithsonian Air & Space.

“I don’t think this is a matter to be settled by scientific peer review,” he said. “The repercussions of sending a message and possibly getting a response — or even an alien visit — are just too great for this to be decided by a small group of scientists alone.”

Schulze-Makuch suggested that international protocols, presumably established by the United Nations, should determine which messages we address to the aliens — and which procedures we follow if we get a reply.

So who should be in charge? The diplomats or the generals, the scientists or the crowds? It sounds like the plot for dozens of movies and TV shows about alien contact, going back decades. And it sounds like an issue that someone should be taking seriously at last.

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