Arecibo Message

In 1974, the most powerful broadcast ever deliberately beamed into space was made from Puerto Rico. The broadcast formed part of the ceremonies held to mark a major upgrade to the Arecibo Radio Telescope. The transmission consisted of a simple, pictorial message, aimed at our putative cosmic companions in the globular star cluster M13. This cluster is roughly 21,000 light-years from us, near the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, and contains approximately a third of a million stars.

The broadcast was particularly powerful because it used Arecibo's megawatt transmitter attached to its 305 meter antenna. The latter concentrates the transmitter energy by beaming it into a very small patch of sky. The emission was equivalent to a 20 trillion watt omnidirectional broadcast, and would be detectable by a SETI experiment just about anywhere in the galaxy, assuming a receiving antenna similar in size to Arecibo's.

The message consists of 1679 bits, arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters per line (these are both prime numbers, and may help the aliens decode the message). The "ones" and "zeroes" were transmitted by frequency shifting at the rate of 10 bits per second. The total broadcast was less than three minutes. A graphic showing the message is reproduced here. It consists, among other things, of the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life. Although it's unlikely that this short inquiry will ever prompt a reply, the experiment was useful in getting us to think a bit about the difficulties of communicating across space, time, and a presumably wide culture gap.