WASHINGTON. At around 9 a.m. EST last Friday, the 900-ton instrument platform suspended by cables 492 feet in the air, came crashing down on the 1,000-foot-wide telescope dish below. As so ended the remarkable life of the famous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which opened in 1963.
Last November, a heavy cable snapped and crashed through a portion of the telescope’s aluminum-paneled dish.
It’s as though the 57-year-old scientific instrument just wanted to die.
A giant ear to the sky
Its accomplishments range from establishing the rotation rate of the planet Mercury, the discovery of the first near-Earth asteroid by radar, and detecting high-altitude blue-jet lightning here on Earth, to name of few of its findings.
But back in 1974, astronomers at Arecibo did something unique for its time. They broadcast a radio signal to the globular star cluster M13, roughly 25,000 light years from Earth.
A message to little green men
The “Arecibo Message” broadcast mathematical data that when assembled formed into a crude, pixilated image. One that contained a model of DNA’s double helix, the location of Earth in our solar system, our planet’s population, and the dimensions of the Arecibo radio telescope from which the message was sent. Oh, and a crude, stick-figure representation of a human being.
The message was the first conscious attempt by Earth’s scientists to contact an alien civilization, but it wasn’t the last. Four years later, in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe carried a gold record containing digitized photos and examples of music thought representative of humanity’s diverse creativity.
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” even did a comedy news segment reporting an alien civilization’s response to Earth’s musical offerings, coming in the form of a request,
“Send more Chuck Berry.”
Beware of the listener
And as recently as 2017, METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International sent a radio signal to the star GJ 273, in the constellation Canis Minor, around which orbits an exoplanet containing elements believed favorable to the development of life.
At a mere 27 lightyears from Earth, it’s believed a radio reply would come as soon as 25 years. But not everyone is happy about these interstellar shout-outs.
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researcher Dan Werthimer told New Scientist magazine:
“Ninety-eight percent of astronomers and SETI researchers, including myself, think that METI is potentially dangerous, and not a good idea. It’s like shouting in a forest before you know if there are tigers, lions, and bears or other dangerous animals there.”
The late physicist Stephen Hawking considered the question in the 2016 Discovery Channel special “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places”:
“One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this. But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”
Just how many life-sustaining worlds exist in our Milky Way Galaxy? Around 300 million. At least that’s the estimate given in a new study released in early November entitled “The Occurrence of Rocky Habitable Zone Planets Around Solar-Like Stars from Kepler Data.”
It stretches credulity to imagine there aren’t a few bad apples among our spiral galaxy’s advanced civilizations (cue ominous “Empire Strikes Back” music here).
So, is there an out-of-this world, Warner Brothers cartoon equivalent to Marvin the Martian lurking in deep space? One seeking to destroy us with a world-killing weapon like the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator?
Saved by a paradox
Well, we can take comfort in what’s known as the Fermi Paradox. In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked a gathering of fellow scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico,
“Where is everybody?”
Fellow physicist and father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, recalled,
“The result of his question was general laughter because of the strange fact that in spite of Fermi’s question coming from the clear blue, everybody around the table seemed to understand at once that he was talking about extraterrestrial life.”
In other words, the crux of Fermi’s question is this: if beings in faraway and advanced alien civilizations exist, why haven’t we on Earth received radio communications or visits from them?
A flying disk
But there are those who insist the US government has hidden evidence of alien visitations from the American public since the supposed 1947 crash of an extraterrestrial craft near Roswell, New Mexico.
And the official statement from the local Air Force base regarding the event remains fresh in the minds of UFO enthusiasts:
“The many rumors regarding the flying disk became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.”
They later walked back that statement, saying the debris recovered from the crash site turned out to be from a downed weather balloon.
But the Roswell incident, as well as increased UFO sightings following the Second World War, may have inspired Fermi’s question.
A question that astronomers at the Arecibo radio telescope thought might be answered after sending a radio message, like a note in a bottle tossed into the vast sea.
Top Image: The damaged Arecibo radio telescope. Global News screen capture.